posted on 21-Oct-2001 7:46:31 AM
Disclaimer: I don't own anything Roswell, GH, M/L, J/B, etc.
Category: M/L with the rest of the gang
Rating: PG-13
Summary: This is an AU fic. Kendall Blake is really Liz Parker. If you want to know why she has a different name, you'll just have to read and find out.

~~~~~~~~~~~
Kiss the Flame
(excerpts by Jewel)

Kiss the flame
Let's run with the hunted, the untamed
Kiss the flame
Embrace the faceless, the unnamed
Kiss the flame

Please, love, let's make
No impartial vow
Let all fall away that's not crucial now
I want a brave love
One that makes me weak in the knees
I want a crazy, crazy love
One that makes me come undone at the seams

Kiss the flame
Let's run with the hunted, the untamed
Kiss the flame
Embrace the faceless, the unnamed
Kiss the flame

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
~ chapter 1~

The speaker's voice droned on and on as Max absently drummed his fingers on the table. He tried to concentrate on the prospectus in front of him, but his thoughts kept flying here and there with no particular, definite direction. He reached up and loosened his tie. Funny. Max thought. This tie has never choked me before. He leaned back restlessly in his chair as his thoughts drifted once more.

He was so bored. Not just with this meeting. With life. In fact, he couldn't remember the last time he'd felt alive and full of purpose. The last time he'd been faced with a real challenge. Something that made him think. Made him risk everything. Business had become routine for him. One long progression of boring meetings and handshakes, takeovers and deals. He found little satisfaction at the end of the day when he closed his brief case and turned his thoughts toward home.

Home. Wasn't that the place you were supposed to want to be? Your refuge. Your castle? Max couldn't remember the last time that he actually breathed a sigh of relief when he closed the door behind him and stepped into his own personal kingdom. Lately, it seemed like a prison of silence and restlessness more than a place to find peace.

And pleasure. Wasn't the very definition of 'pleasure' to have fun? Max released a sigh as he thought of his latest string of girlfriends. First there had been Tania, then Ashley. Nicole. Meghan. Tiffany and Claudia. Then finally, Tess. She was his latest. They were all extraordinarily beautiful women, but none of them ever kept his interest for long. He often found that their beauty didn't venture below the skin and left a hollow, vacant feeling with him. As vacant and hollow as the thoughts in their heads. Max thought.

Tess had managed to stay around the longest with a whopping 5 dates, totaling 2 months time, but that's only because she had a larger vocabulary than the rest. Not that there was anything wrong with her. In fact, she was as close to perfect as any woman had ever come. She was intelligent and witty, born of the kind of old-world wealth that never runs dry. And her beauty and social graces made her a charming companion on any occasion. All in all, it could easily be said that, in Tess, Max had met his social match.

But there was something missing. Something that Max just couldn't quite put his finger on. Maybe it was the fire that can exist between two people. Not to say that Tess couldn't be passionate. They had never been intimate, although no one could say it wasn't because Tess hadn't tried.

In fact, she had tried on many occasions to prove that she had enough passion in her to shock the safe combination out of her father if he even suspected what his socialite daughter was capable of. By all rights, Max should have been tempted. But that was just it. He wasn't. In fact, Max couldn't remotely imagine returning her passion with equal fervor. To him she was a beautiful ornament to display on his arm at social gatherings where conversation was drab and dullness was served as the main course.

The only thing that had given him even a glimmer of hope recently had been his brother, Kyle's outlandish scheme to infiltrate and take over EMG International. EMG was a vast, thriving corporation that had its fingers into various numbers of pies. And at its helm sat one Michael Guerin, CEO and grandson to Edwin Montgomery Graham, the old coot himself. Max had come across Michael in several ventures and found him to be a worthy business adversary. One that would actually challenge him, make things interesting. Just the thought sent a greedy, daring smile across Max's face that didn't go unnoticed by the speaker, who continued he presentation with added vigor.

About 4 months ago, Kyle had come to Max with information about a top secret plan EMG had to renovate the dock and downtown area in New Haven, Connecticut, the company's home base. How Kyle got the information Max didn't even want to know. The plan was fairly simple and although not necessarily new, it was a good one. Buy out all of the businesses in the downtown area, renovate and rebuild. New business could purchase space. There would be plenty of family oriented parks and attractions. Export/import traffic would increase. The overall plan was sound and sure to be a financial boon to the city of New Haven…and anyone else involved in the project.

You could never really count on things going smoothly in business, however. And the Grahams definitely had a few glitches in this plan of theirs. First, there was the not so small problem of the local mob syndicate in New Haven. They pretty much ran the docks area downtown and had say in anything that went on down there. It didn't help matters that the current mob lord was Jake Ryder, who by birthright was still a Graham even though he'd changed his name and chosen a life of crime at a fairly early age. But as far as Max was concerned, that was Eddie (as he liked to irreverently call the patriarch, Edwin, of the family) and Micahel's problem.

Where Max came in was the smaller obstacle of a few holdout businesses that refused to sell to the Graham clan. There had been only a handful, which Max had managed to whittle down to only two. One was on the verge of signing a contract with him. The other Kyle had wanted to handle. He said it would take a little more doing and was still a very unsure thing. And it was actually the one Max wanted most. Because it gave them the greatest leverage against Michael. Without this one piece of property, the renovation plan would be shut down before it even got started or they would lose a fortune re-routing their plans.

Max smiled confidently. They'd own it. He was sure. With a little wheeling and dealing and a little pressure applied to the right people by Kyle, Evans Inc. would effectively become a thorn in EMG's side. And from that point on, the world had no choice but to become his again.

A flash of red caught his eye as his attention was drawn to the window and the sports car that just flew into the parking lot. He sat up a little straighter in his chair as he watched the driver jump out of the car and slam the door. The wind caught her long chestnut hair and covered the features of her face. His mesmerized gaze followed her as she walked quickly from the car to the door of the building. He still couldn't see her face, but if it was anything like her body, she must be a knockout.

A question directed to him brought Max's focus back to presentation before him. "Ah, yes. Thank you Mr. James. Sounds like a very interesting plan. If you'll give the details to my team…."

In the next moment, the sound of shouting came from behind the door interrupting Max's instructions.

"Is he in here or isn't he?" A raised voice asked impatiently.

"Miss! Miss! You can't go in there. A meeting is being conducted…" Barbara, Max's faithful assistant replied, her voice sounding at the door.

"Probably to cheat people out of their homes no doubt. I don’t care what you say. I intend to see Mr. Evans. And I intend to see him now!"

The door suddenly opened revealing Barbara's flustered face and the woman Max had been so intently observing only a few moments before. He'd been right. She was a knockout. In fact, she was even more than that. She was perhaps the most beautiful woman he'd ever laid eyes on. For the first time since he could remember, Max was unnerved. One look at her and he felt his heart stop dead in the middle of a beat. And no one could ever convince Max that someone hadn't stolen his breath at that very same moment.

She took one step into the office and glanced around the table, fire flashing from her dark chocolate brown eyes. "Which one of you is Mr. Maxwell Evans?"

All eyes turned to the end of the table where Max sat, as he tried to clear his throat. With the way his other bodily functions had ceased working upon her entrance, he was afraid he might have lost his power of speech as well.

He cleared his throat once more as she approached him. "That would be me." Max said, trying to control the shaking of his legs as he stood up and extended his hand toward her. Get a grip, Max. He said to himself. She's beautiful, yes. But she's just another woman...

She stood in front of him as her gaze swept over him from head to foot. She looked back up into his eyes, shooting him a withering look that make him blink and look away uncomfortably. Ignoring his hand she slammed a packet down on the table. "Well, Mr. Maxwell Evans, I'll have you know that I won't let you get away with it! I will fight you tooth and nail before I let you take away their home. You think you're big stuff sitting here with your thousand dollar suits and grand plans that will bring you more money than you know what to do with. But you're no better than those two-bit hoods on the street that think they have the power to play with people's lives."

She took a step toward him, getting right up in his face. He shook his head slightly at Barbara, who had taken a step forward to stop the beautiful stranger from approaching him, and held up his hand in a stopping motion before putting his hands in his pockets and locking eyes with the woman standing before him.

She was so close. Just a hair's breath away. He could smell the vanilla shampoo she'd used that morning to wash her thick flowing hair. And he found himself getting lost in those large pools of chocolate mystery most people would deign to call eyes.

Her lips were so full and red, like strawberries. He unconsciously licked his lips, imagining what they would taste like. Max had to fight the urge to grab her and kiss her right then and there just to find out. Even amidst a boardroom full of people, with no warning, and no introductions. He didn't care. He just wanted the right to claim those luscious lips as his own.

And the angry blush that spread across her cheeks made Max wonder what particular shade of blush love's passion would bring to those perfect cheekbones. He had no idea what she was there for, but the fire and passion that shone in her eyes excited him and at the same time made him crave to be the cause of such emotion.

She pointed her finger at him as she continued her tirade. "They've had way too many people mess with their lives in an effort to prove just how powerful they are. And now, they finally find a safe place to be and you want to waltz in and take it away from them. Well, over my dead body! You continue this course, Mr. Evans, and I promise you, you'll be in for a war..." she crossed her arms in front of her as her chin came up defiantly, "…which would be a shame. Because you'll lose."

Max's eyebrow raised in surprise at her bold, confident words. "What makes you so sure?"

"Because I have something a helluva lot more important to fight for than money. And if I don't win…" she glanced at the package she'd thrown on the table then back up at him, her dark eyes filled with determination, "…they would be the real casualties. I simply won't let that happen. Good day, Mr. Evans."

Without another word, she nodded to him, turned on her heel and stalked out of the room, disappearing as quickly as she came.

Max stood spellbound. Stunned. Completely mesmerized, until the sound of the slamming door jolted him from his daze. He'd been so captivated by this firebrand that he hadn't had the presence of mind to stop her from walking away. At the realization that she had just vanished from his life and he didn’t know the first thing about her, Max jumped into action and quickly ran to the door.

"Wait! Hold on a second!" Max called after her as he ran out into the lobby followed by Barbara. He ran into a couple of clerks sending their files and papers flying into the air before floating slowly to the ground. He continued, moving into the lobby and glancing around quickly to see where she might have gone, drawing strange stares from waiting clients.

But he was oblivious to the stares. All he could think about was finding her…not letting her get away. Looking around and not seeing her anywhere in the lobby, he ran to the entrance and threw the door open just in time to see the red sport car speeding away.

He quickly turned to Barbara and started barking questions. "Who was that? Where did she come from?"

"I'm sorry, Mr. Evans. I should have never let her close to the room…."

"Never mind that, Barbara. Did she give you her name?"

"Yes….I believe she did."

"Well??" Max prompted impatiently.

"She said her name was….Ken…no Blake something…no…it's Kendall. That's it. Her name is Kendall Blake."

Max turned back toward the door and gazed down the road where her car had disappeared around the corner. "Kendall Blake." He repeated quietly as a smile played on his lips. This was going to be fun.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
After learning his enchantingly mysterious visitor's name, Max had quickly dismissed his meeting, grabbed up the package she'd dropped on the conference table, told Barbara to hold all of his calls and locked himself in his office to look through the documents and contemplate his next move.

Now, an hour later, Max sat at his desk staring out the window at a pile of autumn leaves as a fierce late September wind whipped through the pile upsetting it and sending the milti-colored leaves in all directions. Max sighed suddenly and shook his head. He certainly knew what that felt like. To be hit with something so strong and so powerful that it blew your settled mundane world apart.

To describe all of the emotions running through him at that moment would have been utterly impossible. He was shocked...and angered. Intrigued and mesmerized. Curious and challenged. Somehow he felt found…and yet lost.

He glanced down at the opened package on his lap. What it contained, Max could only imagine was very precious to the woman, who like the wind outside, had come into his office and completely turned his emotional world upside down. How could it not be precious to her?

Inside were cards made by hands of various ages. Some had tiny red hearts and big letters that said, 'I love you' on them. Others were children's drawings of houses with families standing in front of them and notes their guardians had written that said, 'You made this all possible'.

There were 4 folders an inch thick with these kinds of correspondence and momentos.
And those that had been sent were all addressed to Kendall Blake, New Haven Children's Home and Shelter, 842 River Street.

Which made Max's blood run hot then cold. His brother had been known to pull some nasty tricks, but even Max had believed Kyle had his limit. How could Kyle do such a thing? No wonder he'd wanted to 'handle' that second 'company' in the EMG takeover…the piece of property that had become their meal ticket into the renovation project. He knew damn well Max would never condone the takeover of a children's center…no matter how important it was to a business venture.

His mind instantly flashed back to the memory of Kendall's eyes. The fire and determination that had literally blazed there as she fearlessly declared war on him in the name of the children whose history and declaration of love and gratitude he held in his hands. "Amazing." Max whispered as his mind held that picture in his head.

He spun around in his chair as a sudden impulse swept through him. He grabbed his legal pad and started to scribble a list of notes. Nodding his head, he gave the list a once over before hitting the intercom button on his phone. "Barbara. Come in my office, please."

In the next moment, his door opened and Barbara walked in with a note pad and pen in her hand. Closing the door behind her she came to stand in front of his desk. "Yes, Max?"

Max leaned back in his chair and consulted the list he'd begun to make of reminders to put his plan into action. "I need you to reschedule all of my appointments."

"Starting?"

"Tomorrow."

"Tomorrow?" Barbara asked incredulously. "All of them? Max. That's impossible. You know long it takes to set up some of these meetings. Need I remind you that your biggest meeting with ACME is for Friday? You've waited for that for 3 months."

Max looked up at her sharply. "I'm aware of that, Barbara." He thought for a moment. He really wanted to get started on this new plan of his, but it wasn't worth alienating the entire business world for it. No, his plan could wait. He just hoped he could. "Alright, make it Wednesday. That gives you 2 days. As for ACME, see if we can reschedule for tomorrow or if I can do a conference call."

"Alright. Standard excuse?" She asked with relief as she began to make notes wondering what in the world had come over him all of a sudden.

Max nodded. "Yes. And let Steve know I'll need the jet ready to fly out on Wednesday morning. Oh, and I need you to do a little research for me before I head out for my trip. Find out everything you can on the New Haven Children's Center. It's in Connecticut. Find out who owns it. Who runs it. Financial data. But don't ask Kyle. I don’t want him to know anything about this."

"Ok. Anything else?"

"Yes. Also check EMG's connection to it. And…" Max looked down as a faint blush began to spread over his cheeks and he cleared his throat. "…and Kendall Blake's involvement in it."

"Ah." Barbara said as she tried to hide her grin behind her notepad. So that's what had gotten into him. Now she understood the real reason for the rush. "Anything in particular on Ms. Blake? Marital status? Dress size?"

"That's cute. You're a real comedian, you know it?" Max said dryly as he leaned back, trying to shrug off her suggestive tone.

Try as he might, Max just couldn't help but grin to himself. Actually, he already knew her marital status. Single. Unless she was one of those women who believed in not wearing wedding rings. Somehow he didn't think she was. As for dress size, he'd guess she was about a 6 maybe 4. Depending on the style. No, definitely a 4.

Max pulled his attention back to a waiting Barbara who had cocked a slender eyebrow when she saw his smile appear with the mention of this Blake woman's dress size. She'd never seen him quite so taken so…quickly…before. Clearing his throat he instructed further. "Actually, I'm looking more for how exactly she got the jobs of the Center's 'protector' and 'crusader'. In other words, what exactly does she mean to the Center…and what does it mean to her?"

"Got it. Although from today's performance, I'd guess an awful lot. Whatever you did it sure got her pretty hot today. I haven't seen that kind of….I don't know what…in a long time." Barbara commented.

Max's gaze drifted as he thought once more about the strength and passion Kendall had shown. He saw more from her in 3 minutes time than he had in a lifetime of débutantes and socialites. "Neither have I." He said softly before pulling his gaze back to Barbara his voice taking on an unexpected defensive edge to it. "And just for the record, I didn't do it. Kyle did. Which means I have to go out there now and clean up after him." Not that I mind…this time. It'll give me a chance to see that incredibly beautiful face again.

"Ok. But just remember--some messes don't clean that easily." Barbara cautioned.

"And just what is that supposed to mean?" Max asked as he looked up at her sharply.

Barbara shrugged. "It just means that I've been around long enough to watch the fall out when business and pleasure get mixed. Kyle does it all the time. I'd just hate to see you make the same mistakes your brother does."

"Oh, I never make the same mistakes Kyle does. I'm much smarter than that." Max stated with a confident smirk. "But, uh…out of curiosity…what makes you so sure I want to mix business and pleasure?"

Barbara didn't miss a beat. "The way you looked when she walked out that door and you thought she was gone forever."

Max rolled his eyes to cover the uncomfortable feeling he got in the pit of his stomach that someone, even Barbara, had been able to read so easily the panic he'd felt when Kendall had walked out the door. "Oh, don’t be so dramatic."

Barbara shrugged. "Alright. But I'm warning you now. You'd better know what you want when you go into this. Because something tells me if you don't, you'll be taking the biggest risk of your life."

Max shook his head and chuckled. "Knowing what I want and going for it is never where the risk lies, Barbara. No, the risk comes when what I want turns into what I need. And I don't intend to let that happen."

"Right." Barbara said in a tone of voice that wasn't quite convinced. "Ok. I'll get these plans made for you. Will there be anything else?"

"Nope. Thanks, Barbara." Max said as he leaned back in his chair and turned it back around so he could look out the window once more. His eyes took on a sparkle that hadn't been there in so long as his thoughts drifted once more to Kendall Blake and the challenge she'd laid at his feet. For the first time in a long time, Max actually felt…alive.

Max's smile deepened. Imagine that. And to think…round one was barely underway.

To be continued…


[ edited 1 time(s), last at 20-Oct-2002 8:23:33 AM ]
posted on 21-Oct-2001 7:48:36 AM
"Come stand a little bit closer. Breathe in and get a bit higher. You'll never know what hit you when I get to you. Ooh, I want you. I don't know if I need you. But, ooh, I'd die to find out." Excerpt from "I Want You, I Need You"-- song by Savage Garden
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
~chapter 2~

Three days later: New Haven Children's Home

Kendall rushed in and smiled weakly at the copper-haired receptionist, V Cosmorelli. "Good morning. Just how in trouble am I?"

V, short for Venus--a name she detested and for good reason given her last name and years of childhood taunting--looked up as she handed Kendall her messages. "Not very. Although Claire did say that she wants to see you as soon as you came in. Here are your messages."

Kendall was glancing through her messages as she began to walk away. "Where is she?"

"In her office. Oh, and I've got to tell you...I've just seen the most gorgeous man I've ever seen in my life. He has the most incredible eyes..."

Kendall was only half-listening as she continued to sift through her messages. She had a tendency to tune V out whenever she started mentioning men. Every man to her was the most gorgeous man she'd ever met. "Really? He wouldn't happen to have amazing amber-colored eyes that can darken to midnight in a heartbeat, take your breath away, send shock waves through you and haunt your dreams at night, would he?" Kendall absently murmured her flippant, but all too revealing, response as she headed for the hall, her head still bent as she struggled with the purse and laptop while juggling her coffee and messages.

"I don't know about the dreams or the shock waves, but--yeah, he does. Hey! How did you know that?" V called out with a confused look on her face, but Kendall had already turned the corner heading toward Claire's office. Knocking on the door quietly, she entered when she heard Claire called out for her to come in.

She barely got in the door when she began to explain her lateness as she plopped her purse and laptop on a nearby couch. "Claire, I'm so sorry I'm late. I don't know what it is the last few days, but I've been having the worst time sleeping. Then, of course, I have the worst time getting up and..."

Claire stopped her with a raise of her hand as Kendall advanced toward the middle of the room. Married affluence and consummately professional, forty-three year old Claire Harmon was the director at the Center, in name as well as authority. She sat on the board of directors that created the non-profit center and was very concerned about its financial future. She was also one of two psychiatrists who had volunteered their services to the Center and counseled many of the troubled children that came through their doors.

Since her duties in her private practice as well as other volunteer organizations had been taking her away from the Center as of late, she had been turning many of her duties over to Kendall to handle. So far, she was very pleased with the way things were being run under Kendall's management and had recently promoted her to Assistant Director. Her hopes were to one day turn over complete control into Kendall's capable hands.

Her desk was in the center of the room facing the door with two high-backed chairs facing her. Smiling a greeting, she motioned Kendall into the room. "That's ok, Kendall. We all have nights like that. That's not why I asked to see you. Please, come have a seat."

Kendall headed for the chair that Claire had indicated, but stopped short upon seeing the chair immediately next to it occupied. Her eyes widened in shock and her mouth dropped open when she saw him sitting there. He was the last person she'd expected to find there in Claire's office--especially looking as comfortable and smug as he did.

"*You*?? What are *you* doing here?" Kendall asked with a lot of surprise and a hint of disdain in her voice.

"I see Mr. Evans was correct. He said you'd remember him." Claire said dryly with an upraised eyebrow.

Kendall glanced back and forth between Max and Claire wondering exactly what else Mr. Evans has been telling her. By the satisfied look on his face, she could only imagine it had been the worst.

She opened her mouth to speak, "Claire. Let me explain..."

"Ms. Blake, please." Max interrupted with a warning look in his eyes and a smile on his lips. He could tell she was just getting ready to spill the beans about their previous 'meeting' and he simply couldn't let her do that. It would ruin his plan. "There's really no need. I've just been telling Claire here how you came to me to present the grave financial need you find yourselves in here at the Center. You're plea touched my heart in such a way that I came to offer my help."

Kendall's eyes flashed with anger at his words. Help? Of course he was there to help...to help himself to the land and the buildings! And how dare he mock the importance of the work they do at the Center by saying it had touched his heart? Despite the deceptive kindness in his words and the tone of his voice, she doubted he even knew what a heart was!

Max saw the fire in her dark eyes and it made his heart race wildly. He'd never seen anyone with such passion radiating from their eyes before. That familiar wave of desire swept over him again as his gaze moved from her eyes to her full lips closed in a tight line. What he wouldn't give to taste those lips... He unconsciously tightened his grip on the arms of the chair to prevent himself from jumping up and taking her in his arms right there.

Claire's eyebrow raised as she looked from Max to Kendall then back again. Well, something was definitely going on between these two. The tension that had invaded the room was so thick it could be cut with a knife. Wonder what really happened between them. Claire thought. On second thought, I don't even want to know.

She took a deep breath hoping she wasn't making a fatal mistake. "The reason I called you in today, Kendall, is that I would like for you to give Mr. Evans the grand tour of the Center. Show him the grounds and what we do here. Perhaps if he has a better understanding of the organization, he'll know in what ways he can help."

Kendall stood silently, her cold gaze locked on Max's face. So he wanted a tour, did he? Probably to see which part of the building he would tear down first once he got his grubby little hands on it. She clenched and unclenched her fists unconsciously. He sure had one helluva nerve walking in like this. Well, she'd show him what he was up against.

Claire cleared her throat to get her attention. "Kendall? Do you have a problem with that?"

Max was amazed. As quickly as irritation had flashed in her eyes only moments before, a calmness now seemed to claim her. Those lips that had been clenched in a firm line suddenly loosened to bestow on him the most radiant smile he'd ever seen. In that moment, he thanked his lucky stars that he was sitting because he literally felt his knees go weak.

What a breathtaking smile. It nearly blew him away. So much so that he almost didn't notice how her lips said one thing and her eyes said another. But he did catch it, and it both fascinated him and put him on his guard all at the same time. He had no idea what she was planning, but from the looks of it he'd better be prepared for anything.

There was an unmistakable hint of mischief in Kendall's eyes as she looked at Claire and shook her head. "No, Claire, there's no problem at all. I would love to show Mr. Evans around."

Amazing. Simply, incredibly amazing. Watching the changing emotions play out on her face was like watching a complex rainbow. Just when he recognized the colorful shade of one emotion her expression would subtly but swiftly pull him into the middle of the next feeling before he got a chance to catch his breath. She was by far the most fascinating woman to watch.

"Very well. I have a meeting to attend right now, but…" Claire said as she turned to Max and held out her hand to him. "…Mr. Evans, it was a pleasure meeting you. I hope to be seeing you again soon."

"Likewise." Max said pleasantly as he watched Claire walk out of the room.

As soon as the door was safely closed behind Claire, Kendall crossed her arms in front of her and turned toward him, dropping her charade. She scowled at him, her sudden frown chasing away the light that had entered the room moments before with her brilliant smile. "So, Mr. Evans. You've come to see the battlefield first-hand I see."

Max got out the chair and came to stand in front of her. He was so close she could smell the subtle aroma of his cologne. She craned her neck to look up into his god-like features. From the top of his raven hair down the straight bridge of his nose and the tiny dimples around his well-formed lips to the shadow cleft in the middle of his chin, every inch was pure perfection. As her eyes flicked back to his, Kendall bit her bottom lip holding back the gasp that almost escaped her.

She had never seen eyes that color before. They were dark brown…yet there were tiny flecks of gold mixed in like sunbursts so that his eyes were forever shifting in hue and density. They were like shimmering amber stones that could darken to velvet midnight in an instant stopping off at warm chocolate on their way. Each new wave of thought or emotion brought about a new depth of color to explore. And the way his eyes lit up when he smiled was like watching the sun dance on the water causing it to twinkle like tiny diamonds. They were so incredibly beautiful she could already feel herself drowning in them…just like she'd done every night in her dreams since meeting him. Which could be dangerous.

In fact, for her, his distance was way too close.

For him, not close enough.

He just wanted to reach out and touch her. Discover if her skin was as soft as it looked. Determine if her face would fit as perfectly in his hands as he imagined it would. Or if her lips would taste as sweet as they had in his dreams. He quickly shoved his hands in his pockets and smiled slyly at the way she was biting her lower lip. Hopefully that was a sign that he was getting to her as much as she had already gotten to him. "It's only a battlefield if war is being waged, Ms. Blake. And I, for one, came to...how did they say it?...'Make love, not war."

Kendall swallowed hard and cocked her eyebrow at his choice of words as she tried valiantly to stand her ground. Make love. She thought as images of her nightly dreams flashed through her mind. Of his kiss searing deep into her soul. His gentle, soft voice whispering in her ear causing shivers to run down her spine. Of his hands slowly moving to... Stop this! Get yourself under control! He's the enemy, for pity's sake!

She took a shaky breath before clearing her throat and tried to speak with more confidence than she was feeling. "You can't 'make' love, Mr. Evans. Love is something you either have or you don't. And if you do, you want to share it with those around you."

She took a step back from him trying to place some distance between them in an effort to regain some control over her pounding heart and wandering thoughts. "Then again, what would a ruthless corporate raider who can cut down his rivals with a single look across the negotiating table know about the concepts of love and sharing?"

Max grinned slightly. "Ah, I see you've read 'Fortune's' latest article on me. You forgot to mention the charmingly clever part."

"Oh, was that in there?"

"Yes. Along with 'devastatingly handsome'..."

"Gee. Must have missed that somehow." She shrugged her shoulders and tilted her head to the side in the most adorable away. "Oh well, I guess you can't always believe what you read now, can you, Mr. Evans?"

God, she's beautiful. From her cute peckable nose to the flow of hair that reminded him of the satin. And those eyes. He’d never seen eyes so deep before. He literally felt like he was falling into the vast warmth of the richest, deepest midnight sky. The kind you only see far away from city lights while sailing through soft breezes on a fathomless ocean. The kind that Max loved to lose himself in when the cares of the world pressed too heavily on him. The kind where he found an unattainable peace.

And her mind was just as sharp as her beauty was intoxicating. And she was quick. Yep. This is definitely going to besomething. Max couldn't quite come up with the word for that 'something' he just knew he wanted it no matter where it took him. "I usually don't. In fact, I'd say 50% of what you read in magazines is false and the other half is made up." Max quipped.

"I see. So, you 're saying you *didn't* single-handedly bring down 9 corporations in the last two years?"

Max chuckled. "Single-handedly? No. As much as I'd like to, it's against my policy to take the credit due to others. Many people worked behind the scenes to pull those raids off. Oh, and the actual count was 12, by the way." Max noted with an air of pride.

Kendall smiled wryly. "So, tell me, Mr. Evans...are you here for that magic number...13?"

"Actually, I've always thought of two as a magic number." Max commented suggestively as he took another step toward her. He want so badly to just forego the banter and whisk her off to some exotic location where he could make her forget about any other kind of raid except the one he had planned just for her. He boldly reached up and ran his finger lightly against her cheek. "So. How about you?" He whispered as he gazed at her, hoping to see the desire he felt reflected in her eyes.

Kendall flushed as she felt the trail of fire his touch left on her cheek and the sudden shiver it sent through her. She wanted to dive forward and attach her lips to his. To see if they held the same blazing power that his fingers did. She hadn't felt this kind of instant attraction to someone since... No, don't go there. Her mind screamed out to her. In fact, don't even think about going down this particular road with this man. He's nothing but danger. Gorgeous, intelligent, undeniably sexy...but dangerous nonetheless. And you've had more than your share of that for one lifetime.

That thought alone drove her to action.

Kendall cleared her throat as she moved away from him and went to stand behind the chair. She desperately hoped that by putting a physical barrier between them, he would cease to have this overwhelmingly unnerving affect on her. Her steady gaze met his intent, penetrating stare head on.

Strange. For a second there I thought I saw an unmistakable flicker of sadness and fear in her eyes. I wonder who put it there. Max mentally filed that perceptive bit of information away in the back of his mind before turning his full attention back to Kendall who had begun to answer him. "Two *could* be a magic number, I suppose. That is, of course, if the two empires you've narrowed your list down to are the Thorntons and...EMG."

Max instantly veiled his surprise, but not before she caught a glimpse of the affect those two names had on him. His thoughtful expression was replaced with a plastic smile reserved for business adversaries when he didn't trust the direction of their negotiations. "And what list would that be?" He asked warily.

She smiled again. And his knees went weak. That disarming smile seemed to have that particular affect on him...and he wasn't so sure that was a good thing anymore. Not with her apparent knowledge of his business pursuits. Or was she just guessing? He studied her expression carefully. Damn, she was good. He really couldn't tell if her statements were founded on fact or suspicion.

"Your next targets." She stated in a matter of fact manner feeling more and more in control of the situation with every second that passed. "I mean, that is why you're here, isn't it? To add another notch or two to your corporate belt?" When he didn't answer she continued with a wave of her hand. "You know, I do have to admire your taste. The Thornton and Graham family fortunes are beyond compare. And they pretty much give you everything someone like you could ask for."

"Which would be?" Max prompted with a raised eyebrow. This was going to be interesting. What could she possibly know about what he was looking for when at that very moment he wasn't quite sure himself?

"Money. Power. International ties into a number of different industries. Both Thornton Industries and EMG meet all qualifications…in abundance." She looked thoughtful for a moment. "But the thing I think you'll get out of it the most is...the challenge." She chuckled and shook her head. "And let me just say if challenge is what you came looking for, you'll find plenty of it in New Haven."

He donned amused nonchalance like a cloak. "Really? Do tell." Max encouraged as a steely gleam stole into his eyes. Who was this woman? She'd known him a space of 20 minutes and already she had identified and labeled what drove him to action--that insatiable need for a challenge that ruled his life and the sense of victory when the conquest was won.

Kendall noticed the way his eyes changed from the color of gold to an alluring shade half a whisper away from black. Another shiver went through her. So this must be what it feels like to sit across the table from Max Evans in business negotiations. No wonder he'd toppled so many companies. Those eyes would make me want to do anything he asked. Despite her unwillingness to admit it, she couldn't help but feel a wave of admiration and sudden desire.

She cleared her throat once more, trying to bring her thoughts back into focus. "Let's just say that I wouldn't expect a warm welcome if I were you. The people of New Haven have a stubborn tendency to hold on to the things they hold dear. And they fight for what's rightfully theirs."

Max shrugged. "So does anyone with half a backbone. What makes them any different?"

Kendall nodded as she clasped her hands in front of her. "True. Very true. But the Thorntons and the Grahams have a lot more power and a lot less heart than most people. Not to mention a general lack of conscience. So, when they fight, it's usually for keeps. And anyone who goes against them had better be willing to risk it all."

Max grinned slightly as a greedy almost wild hunger shot through his darkening eyes. "Don't you know? That's the only way to play the game."

Kendall's eyes shimmered with reluctant admiration as a smile played on her lips. She always had been attracted to powerful men. Confident men. Men who knew exactly what they wanted and knew exactly what to do to get it. Max Evans was certainly no exception. "Maybe so." She paused before adding a warning. "Just be prepared. It won't be easy. They're always looking out for those wolves in sheep's clothing."

Seeing a chance to switch the direction of the conversation back to the original intent of his visit, Max interjected, "So, is that how you see me, Ms. Blake? As a wolf?"

"Yeah. The child-eating type." A decided nod of her head caused her luxurious hair to bounce around her shoulders.

Max didn't miss a single move as he cocked a triumphant eyebrow. "Ah, but wolves don't eat children. In fact, wolves are one of the more family-oriented animals to exist. Haven't you heard of the little boys who were raised, unharmed, by a pack of wolves?"

Kendall tried to hide her smile amazed at how many directions their conversation had already taken in the space of 20 minutes. He was such a fascinating man. And there lie the danger. For a woman who had only recently learned to control her voracious curiosity, Max Evans was a very tempting candidate for exploration. "You might want to brush up on the definitions of fact and fiction, Mr. Evans. That's a fairy tale legend--a myth-- if you will, that never really happened."

Max shrugged, enjoying this game they'd begun more and more with every passing second. "How do you know? Who's to say that somewhere, somehow it did happen and was passed by word of mouth from generation to generation? That is how legends begin, you know. There's probably a bit of truth in every fairy tale you read. Unless, of course, you don't read fairy tales."

"Seems a waste of time, don't you think?"

Max grinned devilishly as if he'd just discovered a weakness he could use later against her. "Ah. A cynic. So, you don't believe in any fairy tales?"

"Oh, on the contrary. I most certainly do believe in fairy tales...especially the ones with wolves in them." Kendall batted her eyelashes and smiled innocently.

"Oh, really? And why is that?" Max asked with an amused twinkle in his eyes.

"Because in fairy tales the wolves are always very big...very bad...and *very* deceptive. Just like the wolves in real life." She added her judgement of him, the look in her eyes leveling him with the meaning of her words. "Just like…you."

"Maybe those big wolves really aren't as bad and deceptive as you think." Max suggested as he sidestepped her jab and continued to parry.

"Maybe you're right." She countered, holding her ground firmly. "Maybe they're worse."

Max cocked his head to the side, trying his best to size her up and finding it almost impossible. Which was a new sensation for him and one that made him long to discover even more what exactly made this little bombshell tick. It had been a long time since he'd met a woman who could keep up an intelligent, witty, almost flirtatious conversation with him.

And he didn't want it to end.

With an air of decidedly casual sensuality, Max walked to where she was standing behind the chair, put his elbow on the back and folded his hands together as he leaned against it bringing his eye level much closer to hers. "What exactly would said wolves have to do to convince you that their intentions are completely honorable?"

Kendall's eyebrows furrowed in mock concentration as she tried to form her answer. "Hmmmm, that's a tough one." She snapped her fingers as if she suddenly thought of something. "I got it. How about trying the truth for a change?" She crossed her arms in front of her and looked into Max's eyes defiantly. "So, how about it, Mr. Evans? Why don't you tell me the real reason you're here?"

Max leaned in closer to her, his voice becoming sexy and low. "I should think that's rather obvious. Wouldn't you?"

Kendall looked up at him coyly. "Somehow I don't think the words 'obvious' and 'Max Evans' belong in the same sentence." A slight grin caused her eyes to sparkle with a challenge. "Is it really this hard for you to answer a simple question or are you being obtuse on purpose?"

"You're right. They don't go together." Max noted in answer to her first statement then continued to answer her questions, each in their turn. "Not usually. And...I prefer to think of it as answering questions with style." Max stated with a cocky grin as a fresh wave of vanilla scent filled his senses. "So, what was that question again?"

Kendall gulped and her eyelashes fluttered helplessly as her mind frantically searched for consecutive words that would make sense. Somehow, that lethal smile of his drove all thought clear out of her head. She reached…she reached…she grasped. "What…uh…what's the real reason you're here?" Kendall repeated for him absently as her eyes remained focused on the sudden brilliance of his smile.

"The *real* reason?" Max echoed as his voice lowered with meaning as his eyes locked with hers. "You, of course."

"Me." Kendall repeated.

Max nodded. "Uh-huh. I thought you deserved a chance."

"A chance to what?" Kendall's level gaze never faltered, but despite her own inner resolve, she couldn't stop the corners of her mouth from turning into the beginning of a grin. This man was unbelievable. Cute. Adorable. Sexy as hell. And utterly unbelievable.

"Thank me." Was the simply stated reply.

Kendall's grin widened into an unbelieving smile. Her voice held a note of incredulity. "Thank you? For what?"

"For saving your job."

Kendall laughed in unbelief. It was a tinkling, musical laugh. Completely unexpected and totally sincere. "Saving my job? And how do you suppose you did that?"

Max shrugged trying to hide the shiver that he felt wracking his body at the sound of her laughter and the sudden sparkle in her eyes. "By not telling your boss the truth, of course. See, I could have told her how you barged into my office, upset my secretary, disrupted my meeting and made me look...uh, less than my usual best, shall we say, in front of potential business partners. You're little stunt could cost me several million, by the way."

"Oh, like that's of any great concern of mine." Kendall threw back at him quickly with a quick roll of her eyes.

"It should be. See, the more projects I have on my plate, the less time I have to think about you."

Kendall smiled slyly. "Sounds like a personal problem to me."

"Would you like it if it was?" Max asked, his voice becoming low. His eyebrow raised seductively as he leaned even closer to her his eyes never leaving hers.

Kendall swallowed hard and blinked quickly trying to calm this sudden feeling his nearness was stirring within her. Without realizing it, she found herself being instantly and completely drawn into his eyes. Get a grip! her mind screamed to her. But her body had a will of its own.

Her gaze moved from his eyes to those perfectly framed lips that were inching their way toward hers. She looked back up into his eyes and saw a fire burning there that couldn't be mistaken for anything but desire and wondered if what she saw was his alone to claim or just a mere reflection of what was surely written in her own.

She could feel herself getting lost. Lost in those eyes that had kept her from sleeping successfully the past few nights. The ones that made her want to stay forever in a world full of chocolate oceans and golden sunsets.

Trying desperately to keep herself from drowning in his eyes, Kendall forced her mind to form a sentence. "It…uh…depends on how personal." What!?!? Where did that come from?!? She couldn't believe that not only did she just think that...but she just blurted it out...to a complete stranger. What was happening to her? She wasn't like this...anymore.

Max was having as hard of a time forming sentences as she was. He could feel himself being pulled into the darkness of her eyes and marveled at how incredibly right it felt. It was the most wonderful feeling. Like he was floating. How he'd love to live forever in that hazy cloud of desire he saw waiting for him in her eyes. "You tell me. How personal is all the way to heaven?"

Kendall blinked and let out a shaky breath as she read the hidden meaning behind his words. No. Uh-huh. She couldn't do this. This wasn't right. There were a million and one reasons not to want this. Not to be drawn into him. Not to feel his fire only a breath away from her.

He was a man she was supposed to be preparing to battle, not someone she should even consider getting involved with. Not someone she should want to even kiss. But oh, what a kiss it would be… Soft as velvet. As scorching as the sun. Steamier then volcanic sand after a cleansing rain…

She had to stop this. She had to stop thinking this way. Feeling these things. More than just her own life depended on it…

Think, girl. Think. Problem was…she didn't know the first thing about him, except that he was a ruthless corporate raider that had his sights set on her kids' home. Her kids! How could she have forgotten? They were the reason she was on the warpath in the first place and she had no doubt he'd walk right over them and anyone else in his path to get what he wanted. Well, she wouldn't let him do it. He'd have to go through her first and when he did it would most definitely be war they made--not love.

Intoxicating. Magnificent. Completely fascinating the way her face changed as each thought painted a new expression on her face. It was as if her body was warring with her mind. She wanted him. He read that as plainly on her face as if he were reading a book. And the hungry, primal man in him wanted to take her before she had a chance to think about what she was doing.

But the lady in her stopped him.

Max was suddenly at a loss. This woman was different from any woman he'd ever known. He'd felt that instinctively the moment he saw her step out of the car and burst through the door of his office. That she was perhaps the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen with a body to match was no question. That he wanted her was a certainty. But there was so much more to her than just that. In the space of a half an hour, she'd stood up to him, verbally sparred with him, turned him on, shut him down, read him like a book and intrigued him like no one ever had.

And he was baffled. Because as strong and spirited as she was, there was a vulnerability, even a sadness in her eyes that made him want to reach out and protect her...make that pervasive sadness disappear.

Suddenly, her opinion of him mattered. It was as if he needed to win her approval and touch the heart he saw in her eyes before learning what it felt like to hold her through the night. Instantly, unexpectedly, he knew he wanted more. And it excited him...and terrified him all at the same time.

Seeing the dazed desire in her eyes begin to fade as rational thought came crashing down on her and becoming aware of his own changing thoughts, Max pulled back a little and grinned. The unsure territory he was treading shook under his feet though his practiced smile remained confident and nonchalant. "If heaven's too much to ask for right now, I will settle for lunch and a chance for some pleasant conversation."

Kendall opened her mouth to speak when there was a quick, unexpected knock at the door just before it flew open causing Kendall and Max to jump away from each other as if they'd been shocked. V poked her head in the door and stopped short. Realizing she'd obviously walked in on something, but not exactly sure what, she mumbled an apology. "I'm so sorry to interrupt, Kendall, but we have a bit of an emergency."

"What is it?" Her voice sounded strained, even to her own ears. Maybe because all she'd been able to hear for the past several minutes was the sound of her own blood as it rushed through her veins in perfect, irrational cadence to the rapid beating of her heart.

V looked down at the papers in her hand. "A new admittance. Jared Rollins. Ward of the State. His dad's in prison and his mom's in the hospital. She has cancer and probably won't last much longer. Jared's grandmother…um, Margaret Thompkins, has been contacted, but she lives in Iowa and doesn’t have the money for the plane trip so it'll take a bit of time for her to get here. Jared's screaming for his mommy and well...he's getting a bit uncontrollable. They said you'd know what to do..."

Kendall nodded her assent and started to walk past Max when he reached out and stopped her by grabbing her arm. "Hey, wait." He'd been watching her face while V was giving her the run down on the little boy. He was amazed at how her every focus was on the emergency at hand. How all was forgotten except the fears and pain of one small child.

Kendall looked up at him, irritation flashing in her eyes. When she spoke her voice was cold and filled with barely controlled frustration. "I'm sorry, Mr. Evans, but I won't have time to take you on that tour. And I certainly don't have time to banter with you about fairy tales and heaven anymore. There's a world called reality that I live in and right now it's calling my name."

Max got the full significance of her words and nodded understandingly. His voice suddenly softened with a genuineness that shocked her. "Just as long as you realize reality isn't all there is to life. There's also a very powerful thing called 'love'. Sounds to me like Jared's going to need every ounce you can spare." Max stated quietly before adding sincerely, "I hope...I hope everything works out ok. For Jared, I mean."

Kendall blinked and looked away. She wasn't sure how to respond. She certainly hadn't expected such unselfish, heart-felt statements from someone like Max. If he was trying to confuse her, he was doing a bang up job of it. She nodded and whispered, "Me too."

Then she walked toward the door stopping suddenly and turning back toward Max. "For lunch and pleasant conversation, I'd be at The Bluff Café'. High noon." With that impulsive invitation given, she turned and quickly walked out the door.

Max released a loud shaky breath with a slight shake of his head and whispered, "Wow!" Still reeling from the aftershock of her presence, Max said out loud to no one in particular. "Alright, Kendall. So, you know how to get to me." He then smiled to himself as a plan began to form in his mind. "Well, get ready...because you aren't going to know what hit when *I* finally get to you."

Making a mental note to find the nearest cold shower, Max pulled out his cell phone and punched a few buttons as he headed out of Claire's office. "Barbara, it's Max. I need you to send one of the company jets to Iowa. Yes, Iowa. No, send Terry. He'll be picking up a woman. A grandmother by the name of Margaret Thompkins…"

to be continued...

posted on 21-Oct-2001 7:49:34 AM
~ chapter 3 ~

Max glanced down at his watch.

Five minutes till noon.

High noon.

He shook his head in disbelief. He'd only met the woman twice and was already thinking of another meeting as if it were a showdown at the OK Corral. Not that he minded. In fact, he was actually looking forward to the fireworks. He'd prepared for it even.

A sly smile spread over his face and his deep amber eyes twinkled with mischief as he checked the bag by his side once more to see that his props were in place. Yep. He was definitely prepared for this one. Unlike this morning.

This morning, he'd made a huge mistake. One that he should have never made given his track record in business. It was the unforgivable mistake of assuming. He had walked into Claire's office believing he held the upper-hand with the element of surprise being on his side. But Kendall showed him she was more than up to the challenge. In fact, there were actual moments that Max had been unsure what to say…and do.

Which never happened to him.

Physically, he was so attracted to her it blew him away. He hadn't felt that kind of instantaneous desire for someone since...well, for a very long time. But it had been the strangest sensation. As gorgeous as she was and as many times as he had dreamed over the last three days of wrapping his arms around her and carrying her to paradise, once their rousing discussion began he couldn't do it. He couldn't bring himself to expertly storm the castle gates and claim the spoils of war once he had gotten a glimpse of the sparkling princess hidden deep within the strong fortress' walls. More than once since leaving her, Max found himself wanting to don a suit of armor, take up his sword and protect her from any of those big bad wolves she believed were so prevalent in the world.

Which completely intrigued him. Because he'd thought his days as a true, selfless knight in shining armor had been snuffed out of him years ago. As had the notion that there were still real-life princesses in the world worth fighting for…

Their conversation had been both challenging and stimulating and even eye opening. He was amazed at how well she read him like a book. And how quickly. He prided himself on being enigmatic. Mysterious. Intriguingly contradictory. That always gave him the advantage in any relationship--business or personal. Besides his family, no one really knew who the real Max Evans was deep inside. What his secret passions were. What his goals or his loves. What drove him to action. And he liked to keep things that way. Strange as it seemed, he actually appreciated and even enjoyed the ruthless, cutthroat business facade he donned in public. It kept people at a distance he could handle. A distance he could afford.

Until three days ago. Until her. Somehow she'd gotten past his first armor of defense. Somehow she was able to peer in his eyes and peel back that cloak of mystery enough to understand what made him tick. The thrill of the challenge. The passion of the game. The exhilaration of victory. And she not only understood it, she played up to it with amazing ease....and won.

The first round at least.

Oh, he wasn't out to hurt her. In fact, he wasn't even out to take the Center away from her like she believed. Max was ruthless in business, but even he knew where to draw the line when it came to his own business pursuits. And that line usually came when it effected innocent people who had no chance of recovering their losses on their own. Like children who had been forced to suffer through lives of abuse at the hands of power driven, thoughtless lunatics.

Max shook his head as his thoughts instantly turned to Kyle. Thoughtless lunatic was precisely the part Kyle must have been playing when he attempted this deal. In fact, Max was so disgusted and furious with Kyle's actions that when he found out the only thing that had kept his brother alive was that Max couldn't find him at the time. So, instead, Max needed to find a way to minimize the damage Kyle had created while trying to salvage their own interests. And although he had been aching to see this Kendall Blake again, Kyle’s antics had created a legitimate business reason for his presence in New Haven.

Now, after meeting with and spending a very short, very intriguing time with her, he knew that, more than ever, he wanted to be the one to tell Kendall about the misunderstanding and that he intended to make things right for her...and her Center. He needed it, in fact. He needed to be the one to look in her eyes and see her relief and joy when she knew her precious center was safe with him.

Maybe then the unsettling images of fairy tale princesses and fire breathing dragons would be banished again to the world Max never visited. The world of dreams.

That didn’t mean he couldn't have a little fun with this game first, though. In fact, it would make the victory all that more sweet. And that's what this lunch would be about. Perhaps if he could explain this misunderstanding, he might have a chance to repair what damage had been done while securing Evans Inc.'s future in the city of New Haven.

After seeing that goal to completion, he’d be able to pursue his second, more enticing goal...Kendall.

To do that, he’d first have to discover exactly what made her tick. Because only then would he know how to position himself so that they were on a more equal playing field then he'd been in the past two meetings. He simply couldn’t let her get the upper-hand again. And once he’d won a round or two, he was convinced she’d be more favorable to giving in to this incredible connection they had between them. The one he’d felt since the moment he saw her. The one he was now convinced she felt as well.

Especially after this morning.

This morning, sparks had been flying. Lightning struck more than once. The earth actually began to quake under his feet. And electric heat had crackled in the air around the two of them as they bantered back and forth with an ease that had even shocked Max.

Despite the unexpected challenge Kendall presented, or maybe because of it, Max was determined to play this fiery game and win without so much as a single singe. As for Kendall's defeat…well, he'd never had a complaint from a former conquest yet. As in all deals, both parties came away mutually satisfied. No reason to think Kendall would be any different. That is, once he broke through those barriers she'd built around herself.

Max still remembered the look of sadness and fear in her eyes when he'd mentioned two being a magic number. He wondered who had hurt her so badly that those eyes meant to be alive with dreams were clouded with mistrust and cynicism instead. Whoever he was, he must have been a fool to let her go.

Shaking his head clear of that unexpected thought, Max glanced back down at his watch and grinned.

Noon. Finally.

Let the showdown begin.
~~~~~
“Hi. Sorry I'm late." A perky voice interrupted Max's perusal of lunch specials as he sat alone at a corner table by the large window that overlooked the docks and peacefully flowing inlet into New Haven Sound. Max looked up from his menu to see a woman with chin-length reddish brown hair standing in front of him, a broad smile plastered to her face and her hands nervously fingering the chair in front of her. He narrowed his eyes slightly. She looked familiar. But from where?

"Kendall said you'd be waiting for me." She said as she pulled out the chair and plopped down across from him.

"Kendall? As in Kendall Blake?" Max asked as his eyebrow raised at the same time his heart sank. No. She couldn't possibly have done this to him. Could she? Glancing out the window absently, Max remembered the mischievous twinkle in her eyes when she told Claire she'd love to take him on a tour of the Center. It was a twinkle that had immediately put him on guard. Yep. She could. And she did.

He sighed unconsciously, half amused-half annoyed, unable to believe she'd out done him once again. He'd been sure he was prepared. And he was. For everything except her not showing up. His eyes drifted to his lunch companion who seemed to have trouble with the concept of sitting still as she bounced slightly in her seat and played absently with her utensils. So, this is what happens when you assume one too many times around Kendall Blake, huh? God, she's good. And she's going to pay for this one… Max plastered a smile on his face and prepared to get through this lunch as best he could, all the while beginning to plan his counter attack in the back of his mind. "So, Ms..."

"Cosmorelli. But you can call me V." She gushed. "We weren't properly introduced this morning. Which happens a lot at the Center. Most people are so busy running around we rarely have time to look at each other let alone talk. Which is all the more reason why I was just totally floored when Kendall said you wanted to have lunch with me. I mean me of all people? I can't even begin to imagine why." V said as she picked up her menu and began to look over it.

Neither can I. Max thought dryly. I can't believe she told this obvious chatter-box that I wanted to have lunch with her. Oh, the price for this little stunt just went up ten-fold. "One of life's little mysteries, I guess." Max commented, less because he meant it and more because it just felt like something needed to be said. Especially since V had taken a necessary breath and Max feared it might be his only chance to say anything the entire meal.

V smiled and returned her perplexed gaze to the menu beginning to bounce again in her seat as she did so. Max rolled his eyes. Oh, god. This is going to be such a long lunch. At least Kendall would have had a challenging comeback for him. Or a smile that didn't make him care if she said anything at all.

"So, what exactly did Kendall tell you about me?" Max asked trying to ascertain the exact amount of payback he needed to plan for.

V leaned forward, put her elbows on the table and placed her chin in her hand before her words began to tumble forth like rushing water. "Hmmm. Well, let's see. She warned me that you were 'a heartless, opportunistic, deceptive snake in the grass that would take advantage of any and all situations to further your agenda while stepping on anyone and everyone regardless of sex or age'. At least, I think that's what she said."

"Really?" Max said, making sure his smile didn't waver. First a wolf, now a snake. This woman really had a thing for dangerous animals. And talk about deceptive. And did she really think he was that jaded that he would take advantage of women and children? Well, it was going to be an immense pleasure to show her just how wrong she was. "Not a very pleasing description of me. It'd be enough to make anyone run screaming in the opposite direction. Yet, you didn't." And how I wish you had.

V shrugged her shoulders. "I told her she may be used to free meals with gorgeous men, but I wasn't. And I was going to take advantage of the opportunity presented. Do you realize that I will be saving exactly...." V pulled out her calculator and began punching numbers before looking up at him with an excited grin. “...$23.48 by having you pay for lunch? I mean, if I were here by myself, I’d never spend that much on a lunch just for me. I think it’s outrageous what some people pay for things, but Kendall told me you were filthy rich so just order to my heart’s content." She shook her copper head as her hazel eyes widened. "And I’m not one to argue with Kendall."

Max restrained himself from rolling his eyes again. Could this possibly get any worse? "Neither am I…” Max quipped as a secret smile played on his lips. He suddenly had a very strong feeling that arguing with Kendall just might become a way of life for him if she continued to pull stunts like this. In fact, he was pretty sure of it. Normally not a very appealing prospect. So, why then, did a secret thrill just run though him like a current of electricity? “Please feel free to order anything you’d like…”

Max glanced down at his menu as he paused before posing a question he wasn’t all too sure he wanted the answer to. “So…is that all she said? About me, I mean?"

V pursed her lips and thought for a moment before shaking her head. "No, she also mumbled something about you being some kind of god or something...which one was it....?" She tapped her fingernails on the table and Max raised an annoyed eyebrow, fighting the urge to grab her hand in his to make the irritating sound stop. Suddenly, she solved his problem for him when she snapped her fingers. "I know. It was Adonis. I'm not sure which Roman god that was." Tilting her head to the side, her face scrunched up in confusion. "Do you know which one?"

A million dollar smile spread across Max's face as a slight blush crept unexpectedly up his cheeks. "Uh, it's Greek and yeah, I…I think I have a grasp on which one that is."

"Well good, because I wasn’t sure which one she meant. I meant to look it up, but with the phones ringing off the hook like they do…" V brightened remembering one more thing. "Oh, and speaking of phones, I overheard her tell someone on the phone that she'd just met someone with the smile of an angel, but that they were really the devil in disguise. I can only assume she was talking about you since you're like, the only new person she's met this morning…except Jared, of course, and he wouldn't be considered…"

Max smiled again as effortlessly tuned out V's rambling. The smile of an angel, huh? And Adonis. He knew it. He knew she wasn't as immune to his charms as she pretended to be. He glanced back up at V. Maybe this wasn't such a bad choice of lunch dates after all. She was obviously willing to chatter and didn't seem to care about the subject. She could turn out to be a well-spring of information if he played his cards right.

Just getting ready to ask her another question about Kendall, Max noticed that V had looked up toward the door with a surprised grin spreading over her face. "Well, speak of the devil…"

Max looked behind him toward the door just in time to see Kendall smiling at the waiter and nodding her head. He watched with increasing interest as she glanced at their table, nodded at him with a decided look of triumph on her face, victory flashing in her eyes and an air of devilish delight washing over her before turning to man with short-cropped, wavy blonde hair standing behind her.

Reaching out to take his hand in hers, they both followed the waiter past Max and V's table to sit at the table near them in perfect view. "Who's the man with Kendall?" Max asked his curiosity definitely piqued by the appearance of a possible rival on the scene.

V glanced over her shoulder and waved at Kendall who was seated at the side of the table that was facing Max. "That? Oh, that's Kendall's boyfriend, Sean Graham."

Max looked over at Kendall's table and noticed how she was holding her menu high up in the air in front of her covering the whole of her beautiful face. Everything, that was, except her dark shining eyes which were curiously focused directly over the menu to his table instead. An amused grin spread over his face when he saw her duck her head and quickly return her gaze to the menu with such absorbed intensity the moment his eyes locked with hers. He bit down on his bottom lip to stop the bubble of laughter that threatened to explode. So, that's going to be the game today, huh? Sly glances with a little peek-a-boo on the side. Bring it on, Princess. I'm more than willing to play…

Max cleared his throat to cover another chuckle when Kendall slipped him another glance then quickly turned her head away nonchalantly as her face flushed with an unstoppably adorable shade of 'I-am-embarrassed-because-I-just-got-caught-again' pink. Max forced himself to focus on getting as much ammunition against Kendall Blake as he could gather. "Sean Graham, huh? Is he part of the EMG Grahams?”

V nodded decidedly. "Yep. Grandson. From what I hear he and Michael don't get along. Michael Guerin is the CEO and I guess there is some big family rivalry over the position or something. I'm not really up on all the details. I just hear things, you know."

Max nodded understandingly. "Oh, of course. I understand." He looked back over at Kendall who had just ordered and handed her menu to the waiter before he left while Sean reached across the table for her hand. She gave it to him, but....what was that expression on her face? Hesitancy maybe? Or even reluctance, perhaps? "So, uh…what makes you think he's her boyfriend?"

Waving a hand of dismissal in the air, V rolled her eyes. "Oh, please. They've only been dating for like...forever. I mean, I haven't known her that long, but they been together since before I came. And that's been about a year ago."

"By 'together' do you mean they live together?" Max tried to be inconspicuous as he moved his chair ever so slightly so that V's head wasn't blocking his view of Kendall.

V rambled on not even noticing. "Oh, no. Nothing like that. He lives in the G's mansion. That's the Grahams. And she lives in an apartment above Rosie's."

"Rosie's?"

"It's a local diner. Really good chili. You should go there some time. They also have great....."

V's voice trailed off as Max's gaze returned to Kendall's table where she was now sitting with her chin resting in her hand listening to Sean as he spoke animatedly and gestured with his hands. At least, she was pretending to listen to Sean.

Max's eyes narrowed a little as the rest of the world around him went out of focus till the only thing he could really see was Kendall Blake as he she sat at another table with another man. His heart did a strange little flip-flop a sight that was unmistakable. She had a glazed over look in her eyes as if she was completely wearied with the content of Sean's ramblings and on her lips was planted the most fake smile he'd ever seen. It was even more plastic than Barbie's.

One thing was abundantly clear to Max Evans. Kendall Blake…was bored to tears...

After this morning's dynamic dialogue with Max, listening to Sean's discourse on EMG, his grandfather and Michael paled in comparison. Sean was once again complaining about Michael and another phantom offence that had occurred between the two. She loved them both, but there were times she just wanted to ring both of their necks. Or put them in a room together and let them go at each other once and for all and 'may the best man win' and all of that.

While Sean rambled, Kendall's mind took a little trip of it's own. Right into Max's arms…

She was instantly transported to a white sand beach. The soft breeze from the turquoise ocean whipped her long dark hair in front of her eyes. She reached up to push her hair away, her eyes swiftly scanning the expanse of shoreline...searching. Searching for that one person that burned her like the sun and sent her senses floating like a feather on wind....

Max sat watching Kendall, vaguely aware of the sound of V's voice chattering on. No matter how hard he tried, he just couldn't take his eyes off of her. She was too fascinating to watch. Suddenly, her expression had changed. It was as if she were no longer in the confines of this building. Maybe not even in this hemisphere. A far away look came into her eyes as a dreamy smile floated over her ruby lips. What he wouldn't give to be in that dream world with her right now. To see what she was seeing. To know what brought that look of passion to her eyes....

Before she saw him she knew he was there. It was like the sun had risen after a long, cold, dark night with his appearance. He looked up and saw her, a blinding smile gliding over his lips. It was the kind of smile that warmed her from the top of her head to the tip of her toes and made her completely melt inside. Before she knew what she was doing she had begun to run straight for his waiting figure. Only he wasn't waiting anymore. He was running toward her as eager to reach her as she was to reach him.

They met halfway and stopped short. Her breathing was shallow as she looked up into his fathomless amber-jeweled eyes warming with laughter and joy...and desire. The wind played gently with the wisps of his raven hair and she longed for her hands to join it in feeling his hair's softness under her skin. The electric heat that flowed between them exploded the moment he reached out and touched her face bringing his lips down on hers in a searing kiss that....


"Kendall? Kendall." Sean's voice broke through the beginning of her delightfully steamy dream. He smiled at her suddenly. "Where were you just now?"

Kendall crinkled her nose and cleared her throat looking confused and a little dazed. "Me? What? Where was I? Oh, um...nowhere. I mean, I was here. Listening to you."

Doubt crept into Sean's hazel eyes. "Are you sure? I mean, you really looked like you'd drifted...somewhere."

Kendall looked at Sean and blurted out. "Sean, what do you know about Maxwell Evans?"

Sean looked confused and blinked at the sudden change of conversation. "Max Evans? The corporate raider?" Sean shrugged as he began to explain. "Pretty much what everyone knows. He’s ruthless. The kind of man who once he knows what he wants, he doesn’t let up until he gets it...anyway he has to. Grandfather says he's a scoundrel. Very brilliant and clever, though, from what I've heard. He, along with his father and brother, owns Evans Inc. of Alaska "

“Alaska?”

"Yep. Their family headquarters. They own half the state from what I hear. I've also heard Max is a bit of a playboy. But I guess he can get away with it. Apparently women find him attractive or something." Sean commented with a shrug not noticing the look of disappointed annoyance that flashed over Kendall's face. "I know Michael doesn't like him, which gives him a gold star in my book." A look of disgust flashed in Sean's eyes. "Do you know what Michael said to me today? He said...."

V leaned forward and whispered. "I'll be right back. I have to go to the ladies room." Max just smiled and nodded his assent as his gaze drifted to Kendall once more. Whatever dream held her captive before, it seemed to have vanished because now she was conversing with her lunch date instead of merely pretending to pay attention.

A low voice tense with hatred and anger sounded at Max's side. "Well if it isn't Wile E. Coyote, himself." Almost simultaneously, a hand passed before Max's eyes to drop a small, shiny, brass object on the table in front of him. "Recognize this nice, shiny bullet with your name on it? It's been waiting a very, very long time for this day, Max Evans. If I were you I'd start saying my prayers. Cuz I'm thinking this will be a very pretty day for you to die…"

Max closed his eyes and sucked in a breath. Not because of the bullet. Not because of the threat. But because he recognized that voice as well as he recognized the tatoo of a six-pointed star at the base of the man's wrist.

Tbc…


posted on 21-Oct-2001 7:50:13 AM
~ chapter 4 ~

A low voice tense with hatred and anger sounded at Max's side. "Well if it isn't Wile E. Coyote, himself." Almost simultaneously, a hand passed before Max's eyes to drop a small, shiny, brass object on the table in front of him. "Recognize this nice, shiny bullet with your name on it? It's been waiting a very, very long time for this day, Max Evans. If I were you I'd start saying my prayers. Cuz I'm thinking this will be a very pretty day for you to die…"

Max closed his eyes and sucked in a breath. Not because of the bullet. Not because of the threat. But because he recognized that voice as well as he recognized the tatoo of a six-pointed star at the base of the man's wrist.

And Max really did pray. He prayed that he was wrong. He prayed he wasn't seeing the tatoo in front of him. He prayed that his memory was faulty.

But he knew it wasn't. His dreams at night sometimes reminded him of that star. The symbol of loyalty and devotion. Brotherhood and secrets. Life and death.

Painting an enigmatic smile on his face, Max steeled himself and looked up, masking his emotions with casual nonchalance. "Nate. Long time no see. So, tell me...is that the latest greeting for your nearest and dearest?"

Nathaniel Carter, the Bluff Café's owner and New Haven's current mayor, put one hand on the table and the other on the back of Max's chair to lean down, his ice-blue eyes locking with Max's. "Don't get cute with me, Evans. You may not be one for keeping your promises, but I am. I promised to blow you away the next time I laid eyes on you. I intend to do it."

"If I remember, blowing things away was your specialty. But am surprised." Max cast an amused look around the café. "Here? Amidst all these innocents? Oh, my. You really are slipping. Not even seven years has passed and you've already forgotten rule number 3 on how to destroy the enemy…never leave witnesses." He quirked an amused eyebrow at Nate as his observant gaze swept over Nate from head to toe. "Surely, you don't have enough ammunition on you to blow this place to kingdom come just to cover your lousy tracks." Max's eyes darkened and narrowed as they flicked back to Nate's, his jaw tightening in barely controlled hatred. "Unlike last time."

Snapping his fingers as if he'd just remembered something, Max grinned up at Nate. "Oh, that's right. You didn't cover your tracks completely last time. Which is why you lost your job."

"I lost a helluva lot more than a job and you know it, you lousy son of a…" Nate's blue eyes flashed with icy fire as he sucked in his breath. "Let's take this outside."

Max shrugged and casually hooked his arm around the back of his chair as he leaned back and crossed his legs. His confidence was building more and more by the moment. Whatever Nate wanted to do to him, Max was sure he wouldn't do it here. In a room full of people. "I think not. I'm rather liking the ambiance here. Crowded. Safe…"

Kendall glanced up and saw Nate's towering position over Max and sat up straight, instantly captivated by the activities at the next table. What in the world was going on over there? Nate was talking too low for her to hear and Max's face was a mask of indifference. Or was it barely controlled anger? Yep. By the way his jaw just clenched, she'd have to go with the second one.

"Kendall, I'll be back. I need to make a phone call." Sean informed her as he leaned over and pecked her on the cheek.

"Yeah, whatever." She responded automatically, her eyes never leaving Max's face. Although he was trying valiantly to hide it, he really looked upset by something Nate said to him. Suddenly, without warning, Nate grabbed Max by the lapels of his suit jacket and pulled him to his feet.
Kendall shot out of her seat immediately.

"Max, I said we're taking this outside...."

"Nate. What seems to be the problem?" Kendall interjected as she walked up to the table and looked up at Max with a raised eyebrow and a 'What-did-you-do-now?' expression on her face. This was certainly an interesting turn of events.

"He's the problem."

Kendall looked back at Max and saw the storm brewing in his eyes. He was really upset. Wonder what happened between these two. "Uh, Nate, I'm sorry Max is being such a nuisance. If I'd known the two of you knew each other or that he was going to cause trouble for you, I wouldn't have suggested that he come here for lunch." Kendall mentioned lightly.

"You know this scum?" Nate asked incredulously as he looked from Max to Kendall.

"Unfortunately." She responded dryly, noting the annoyed look on Max's face as his cold, hard gaze swept from Nate's hands still gripping him firmly by the lapels to Nate's angry face. The dangerous flash in his eyes said one thing loud and clear: he literally wanted to rip Nate apart piece by tiny piece. "Look, Nate, I'm not sure what's going on but I am sure that the last thing you want to do is cause a scene." She glanced around at the patrons who were beginning to take notice of the commotion in the corner. "It's not all that great for business, you know. Look, if I promise that Max won't cause any more problems while he's here, could we just forget this? For now?" She pleaded her case with her eyes. "Please?"

Kendall's breath stilled in her chest as Nate debated her offer. Her gaze moved to Max's face and her heart stopped mid-beat. Max Evans had the most expressive eyes she'd ever seen. It was never hard to guess what was going through that mind of his and at the same time she was constantly surprised by each new emotion that hit her from the depths of those glowing orbs. Surprised, because she didn't know what was behind the emotions. What made them so powerful. So swift. So…alluring. She wondered suddenly if she was as transparent to him with her feelings as he was to her. If she was, she was in trouble. Big time.

Nate glanced around them then looked from Kendall to Max. His voice was cold and rough when he finally let Max's lapels go with a bit of a shove. "Fine. He can stay…this time. After this, he isn't welcomed here. And I'm warning you, Evans...this isn't over. Watch your step in my town…because I'll be waiting to settle our score…"

"Might as well get comfortable, pal." Max stuffed his hands in his pockets, his stance casual. The timbre of his voice, deadly. "You'll be waiting a long time." Max shot back sullenly, his eyes trying to mask the obvious inner pain he was feeling as his barely controlled anger caused each word to be bitten off with venom.

Nate's jaws tightened. "Just so you know where I stand."

Max, the aloof unruffable businessman, was suddenly back in control. "Located and pinpointed, sir." Max retorted like a soldier standing at attention and saluting, a cocky, challenging smile coming to his lips.

Nate shot him a warning look that spoke volumes only the two men understood then walked away. Max straightened his suit and shook himself as if trying to shake off the bad experience then sat back down, relieved that little confrontation was over with nothing more than the warning that had been given. His eyes immediately drifted to a world beyond the window. A world it was obvious only he could see and one that Kendall got the feeling was very exclusive. And utterly lonely.

Kendall slipped into the chair opposite of Max and raised a curious eyebrow as she tried to keep her tone light. Trying to coax a smile or at the very least dull that sharpened, caged look in his eyes. "Wow. That was…interesting. I've never seen Nate that angry before. You know, when I told you that you wouldn't be welcomed here in New Haven, I had no idea the dislike would be so instant and so volatile. So, what did you do to him?"

Max looked up at her sharply still a little unnerved by meeting Nate again the way he did after all these years. He had no idea Nate lived in New Haven. And he certainly had no desire to revisit the past they had shared. Especially not now. Especially not with her. "Maybe you should ask him. He started it, in case you failed to notice. He was the one manhandling me." He pointed out, irritation lacing his words.

She was taken aback by the look in his eyes. They looked haunted somehow. As if he was trying desperately to forget something...painful. No. She couldn't do this. She couldn't start thinking of him as a man with actual emotions and feelings. A man that could be hurt. That would put him on a level she was in no way prepared to deal with.

"Yes, but there must have been a reason. Nate isn't the type of man to attack unprovoked." Her curiosity pressed the question.

Max sat silently giving her an enigmatic smile as his eyes flashed with…something…before they took on a far-away look. It was obvious this subject was closed for discussion. At least, the deep dark secret parts of it were. She chose instead to respond in the almost flirtatious banter they'd chosen early...the one that came so naturally and didn't cost her anything. "Oh, I get it. It's a macho thing, right?"

"What are you talking about?" Max asked sounding more annoyed than he had planned. He took a gulp of his water in an effort to drown the images Nate's presence invoked in his memory. Get a grip, Max. You have a virtual goddess in front of you. Concentrate on her and not the horror…

Sensing that he needed a moment to compose himself and understanding all too well the hauntings of a past you'd rather forget, Kendall plunged on into the philosophies of men and emotions, knowing he probably wouldn’t be listening too closely anyway. "Men. You all do the same thing. At the first sign of an emotional conversation or a situation where real feelings need to be expressed, you just take one look at each other and....lunge. Fists start flying and things get broken." She glanced down at the table as her own private memories instantly began floating to the surface. "Violence is always the answer for you."

Somehow her words reached him. He studied her for a moment before answering, instinctively sensing that although she was trying to keep her tone light, she was speaking from deep within her own private world of pain. "Not all men are like that, Kendall." Max said softly.

She raised her eyes to meet his defiantly, surprised that he had been paying attention after all. "Most men that I've known are."

"Then you're obviously spending time with the wrong men." And Max let the past go. For the moment. His eyes softened as he felt his control returning to him the more he looked into those midnight eyes frame with the most luscious lashes he'd ever seen. Suddenly, he'd remembered the game and dove in with reckless abandon praying somewhere deep inside of him that his haunting memories would get washed away by the thrill of the chase. The way it always had in the past. "That is...until now." Max's suggestion was laced with meaning as he leaned forward and looked intently into Kendall's eyes searching deeply for what he was quickly becoming accustomed to.

And there it was. That look of uncertainty mixed with hope. Desire mixed with fear. For a moment, Max Evans wanted so much to just reach out and prove he was the one man that could change her world forever. To be the one to wipe away the uncertainty. To banish the fear. But he forced the moment to pass. Desires like that were too raw to be acknowledge. Too real to be attainable. Too strong to be carefree.

Fun and games were his modus operandi. Winning was his objective. Walking away unscathed with the prize, his ultimate goal. And he wasn't about to change that now. Not for anyone. Not even for her…

Oh, no. It was happening again. She felt herself being inexplicably drawn toward him as she began to lean forward, their eyes locked in a look charged with mutual desire. Before she knew it, she was getting lost in those sunlit jewels again. What was it about his eyes that completely took her over? What spell was he casting? What mesmerizing web was he weaving around her?

Kendall let out a shaky breath as she felt his fingers lightly graze hers. Fire shot through her at the touch, rippling its way through her blood and seeping into her bones. It didn't matter. Just as long as this beautifully hazy warmth he was wrapping around her never disappeared. As long as living in the moment was all she was required to do…

No. She couldn't do this. She couldn't lose herself. Not now. Not with him.

Her spine became a rod of steel and her hand quickly slipped from under his light caress as Kendall cleared her throat and looked away trying to gain some semblance of rational thought. Crossing her arms in front of her, her eyebrow raised in defiance as her eyes locked with his in challenge when she chose to ignore his final suggestive comment and instead move to more solid ground. Like thought. And speech. And not falling deeply into his eyes… "So, let me get this straight. You’re telling me that if I hadn't stopped you, you and Nate still would have walked away without any black eyes or broken bones."

It was working. He was getting to her. The raging fire that swept through him when he'd simply brushed his fingers over her soft hand had flashed through her eyes with such force that Max was sure she'd crumble in defeat right then and there. But that would have been disappointing. And Kendall Blake certainly hadn't disappointed him yet. Like a cat playing with a mouse, Max gave in to her obvious need for reprieve. Shrugging he pulled his hand back from the table, Max's confident macho shined through as he declared his response with a cocky grin. "I don't know about Nate, but I know I would have."

Kendall smiled in spite of herself. She couldn't help it. He was so adorably....arrogant It was such a pleasure to be able to bring him down a few notches. "Umm, let me point something out to you. You just admitted that you would have punched him. That makes you no better than any other man who addresses his feelings with a fist instead of words."

Max's mouth dropped open in mock shock as his eyes began to twinkle. "I can't believe you just lumped me in with that unfeeling cad. For the record, my actions would have been purely self-defense. You made a quick sweeping generalization that does not describe me at all." He paused to regard her expression, trying to guess her reaction to his next statement. Denial? Surprise? Or…admittance? "But it sounds like that's not the first time you've done that today."

"Oh, really? And what have you heard?" A secret smile came to her lips as her eyes widened innocently. She knew full well what he was talking about. She had specifically told V her view on Mr. Evans knowing that V would inadvertently pass the word on to him at lunch. What better way to get the word out then to tell the Center gossip, especially when she wasn't sure she'd have the strength to look in those eyes and tell him herself. He seemed to have a way of breaking her resolve and making her change her mind about him with just one look.

Being around him was all very…confusing. And confusion was the last thing she needed in her life right now…

Oh, smooth. So, she's going the denial route. Max eyed her carefully before he looked up at the ceiling as if he were trying to remember. "Uh, let's see. I think the words used were....snake in the grass, heartless, opportunistic, deceptive." He waved a hand dismissively in the air. "Something along those lines."

She shrugged and tilted her head to the side in that way he found absolutely, adorably distracting. "I call them like I see them."

"So do I. And what I see in front of me is someone who is well acquainted with the word 'deception'.

Kendall leaned forward and stretched her hand out to pick up a glass of water. "How so?" She asked before taking a sip.

"You deceived me into thinking I would be having lunch with you today instead of..." Max stopped when he saw her unconsciously lick her lips after taking a drink of water. His gaze lingered on those full red lips still wet from its recent bath. Once again he fought the urge to turn into Tarzan, sweep her up in his arms and carry her to a remote location where the only drink they would crave would be the sweet intoxicating nectar they'd taste from each other's lips.

"V. Her name is V." Kendall prompted bringing him back to the content of their discussion, unaware of where her actions had led his thoughts only moments before. Had she known the images flying through his head, her power of speech would have been swiftly stolen from her and not returned after a very, very long time. "I know that's a really difficult name to remember, what with so many letters to keep track of and all. But I'm sure a man of your extraordinary intelligence and cleverness should be able to come up with a way."

Max cleared his throat and forced himself to concentrated on her words and not the full, luscious mouth that was forming them. "That's cute. Very cute. And very off the point." Max said pointing at her reprovingly.

"Which is?"

"How you invited me to lunch then told V I had invited her instead."

She rolled her eyes. "Oh, THAT!"

"Yes. That." He tried to keep the amusement from his lips, but failed miserably to keep it from seeping into his eyes. "So, what exactly were you trying to accomplish?"

"Accomplish?" She shrugged her shoulders with a nonchalant air. "I wasn't trying to accomplish anything. You said you were interested in good food and pleasant conversation. I've provided both."

"But you knew I wanted you." His voice lowered with more meaning than he had anticipated.

The seductive inflection of his voice and the intent gaze that met her eyes sent a sudden shiver down her spine. Her mouth suddenly went dry and for the life of her Kendall couldn't think of one single thing to say. Well, nothing she could say out loud, that is. Not without revealing to him just how liquid her insides were becoming. How hot and melted. And how utterly, uncontrollably flushed and dizzy she was…

Truth be known, when she invited Max to lunch she had every intention of showing up. To sit across the table from this man who had so completely, instantaneously captured her attention would be bliss. But the more she thought about it, the more she knew she couldn't possibly keep the appointment. He had a way of getting to her. Unnerving her. Causing her to say and do things that she normally didn't. Feel things that she'd taught herself not to feel.

In short, she couldn't trust herself with him. And if there was one thing that she'd learned in life it was that the only person she could trust fully was herself. To knowingly put herself in a situation where she couldn't even rely on that was asking for trouble. And personal trouble was the last thing she needed in her life right now.

Her gaze flitted back to his eyes a new resolve taking hold of her. "I guess it's too bad that what you want isn't a priority in my life, isn't then, Mr. Evans?"

"Priorities can change." Max stated simply.

Annoyance flashed in her eyes. "I suppose for a spoiled little rich-boy like you getting what you want is a way of life." Her voice became low with determination. "Well, if I were you, I'd get used to disappointment because there is nothing you want in this town that you'll be able to walk away with."

"There you go making sweeping generalizations again based on little to no facts. You don't know the first thing about me, yet you presume to know what I want and for what reasons. You've misjudged me, Kendall. And for you to not even give me a chance to explain why I'm here is simply not fair." Max said as he leaned back, frustration beginning to well up inside of him.

He'd been watching her. Gauging every little nuance of her expression. Every flash of fire in her eyes. Each tiny shiver that coursed through her body. As exciting as she was…she was also very unnerving. Because this woman was completely, irresistibly impossible. One minute she was hot. The next she was cold. Every time he thought he was getting through, she'd turn around and slam the door in his face once again. It was going to be very difficult to play the game if she shut down every time he came close to scoring a point.

Then again, maybe that was the very thing that made this game worth playing. It also made it the most dangerous game he had played in a very, very long time. With an inner shrug, Max threw caution to the wind, unwilling to give up this sudden, irresistible feeling of finally being alive again.

Kendall leaned forward across the table the corners of her mouth turned up in a devilishly challenging smile. "As far as I'm concerned, Mr. Evans, we are at war. And everything is fair in war and....." she looked away as if she were trying to think of the other word. In reality, she wasn't sure she could trust herself to say the word 'love' while looking in those mesmerizing eyes without losing all sense of control.

Realizing the game was far from over and seeing his next opportunity to score so neatly handed to him by his enchanting opponent, Max grinned slightly and leaned forward keeping his eyes level with Kendall's, his voice intimate and low. "Love. I think the word you're searching for is...love."

Ignoring the shiver that ran down her spine and the sudden spike in her temperature as he spoke that one word, Kendall's eyes cut back to his face. "Right. That thing you don't know anything about."

She saw a momentary flicker of....something.....what was it? Sadness, perhaps? Pain? His perfectly formed lips tightened into a thin line and he looked away as if he’d suddenly been hit. Whatever it was, it had been there as plain as day. Seeing that hurt in his eyes made her instantly wish she could take it all back. He must think she was the cruelest person he's ever met. What was happening to her? Why should she even care what he thought about her? She swallowed hard as her gaze softened. There was just something about him...

Max blinked quickly and looked away to cover the shot her words sent through his heart. Normally he could take it. Normally he could take pretty much anything. But hearing her say that he didn't know anything about love. Especially after his run-in with Nate...well, for some reason it smarted.

He looked back up at her wondering what she was doing to him. How was it her opinion of him had become so important all of a sudden? Or was that even it? And was it possible she knew about his past? That Nate had told her something? No. Most likely Nate wanted to forget as much as he did. Besides, he doubted if she'd be Nate's confidant in such matters.

Looking in her eyes, Max realized that she had no idea what affect her words would have on him when she spoke them. In fact, she had only been taking cues from him in this duel of jab and duck. It wasn't intrinsic to her nature to be intentionally hurtful. It was a learned trait. One to protect oneself in the heat of battle. Even now, she looked a bit sympathetic, even regretful. Gentleness replaced the pain in his eyes and when he spoke his voice was serious and confident. The slight tremor revealing the intimacy of his admission. "I…may have forgotten a few things…about love, but I know a lot more than you think."

In that moment, looking in his eyes, Kendall instinctively believed him. He had known love. And it had caused him pain. She felt an odd sense of kinship with him. Shared pain will do that. What she wouldn't give to erase that sadness from his eyes and make them twinkle with laughter instead. What am I thinking? Have I gone crazy or something? He's my enemy! Since when do you want to make an enemy's sadness go away? She had to get control and she had to do it quickly or she'd be lost forever to this man.

Swallowing hard, Kendall began to bit her lower lip again in uncertainty. She looked so adorable. Max had to find out what it meant when she did that, what caused it and then do it more often. Seeing the doubt in her eyes, he grinned suddenly trying to lighten the mood as he added, "And what I’ve forgotten, I could always re-learn."

Taking her cue from him, her eyes began to twinkle unexpectedly suddenly feeling as if they'd silently, mutually agreed to take this skirmish onto more solid ground. "You'd need a willing teacher." She shot back glad to see that her words hadn't caused any permanent damage.

Max leaned forward again across the table as he looked into her eyes and whispered with meaning. "You could teach me."

Kendall flushed slightly at his words and the intense gaze he was giving her. She cleared her throat. "Yes, but I said a 'willing' teacher. Besides, I'm unavailable for lessons." She added nodding toward her table where Sean had returned a few moments earlier. He was apparently unconcerned about where his lunch date had gone, seeing that he was once again on the phone.

Max's eyes followed the direction of her nod and he grinned suddenly. "Ah, yes, the boyfriend. Somehow I don’t think your relationship with him classifies you as 'unavailable'."

Kendall laughed at his boldness. "Oh, really? So, you're telling me that even though I'm dating him and even though I love him I'm still classified as 'available'...according to you."

"Love?" Max chuckled. "That's not love. Well, not true love anyway."

"Oh, it's not? Then what is it?" An amused smile played on her lips as she tried to anticipate what he would say next.

"Convenience." Max said quickly then put his finger up. "No, on second thought, I think he's more like your security blanket. You know, that thing you cuddle and cling to and wrap around you when you're too afraid to go it alone."

Now it was Kendall's turn to look away. She blinked and swallowed quickly as she felt her cheeks burn hot with the blush she was sure had risen. How had he seen? How had he known? For weeks now, even months she'd felt unsatisfied with her relationship with Sean. Perhaps it was because he was pressuring her for more than she was willing to give. Or maybe it was because she was becoming more aware of the feelings she had for him and how they didn't equal the intensity of his for her. Lately it seemed she'd been holding on more because he was a convenient date and less because she enjoyed his company.

Like today, she knew in her heart how dangerous it would be for her to sit across the table from Max for any length of time, yet she couldn't resist the chance to see him again. So, she sent V in her place and called Sean to keep her distracted enough not to wander over to his table at some point during the meal. The only problem with that was Sean's company left a lot to be desired…and what was desired was all sitting at another table. Until Sean left. And V left.

It had taken her only a matter of seconds before she was by his side. Oh, she could tell herself it was because she was trying to help him out of an obviously painful situation with Nate. But the truth was, if Nate had never approached him…if Max had never even looked her way, she still would have found a reason to sit across from him and gaze into the magnificent eyes that had captured her with that very first look.

And that terrified her.

Because deep down inside she knew he was right. Sean was her security blanket…at least he had been today. That Max had been able to sum up their relationship in a matter of moments without even having talked to Sean or seeing them together for more than 30 minutes, scared her more than words could express. Because that meant he'd been able to read what she'd been trying to hide even from herself for so long. Well, she certainly couldn't let him know that'd he'd hit a nerve. That would give him too much power...too much leverage.

Her eyes flicked back to his face as a guarded smile crossed her lips. “My security blanket?” She chuckled lightly. “Well, I certainly wouldn’t expect someone like you to understand about the importance of feeling secure in a relationship…”

“Someone like me...” Max repeated knowing full well what road she was headed down and determining not to let her go there before she faced a few of her own signs along the way. “...probably understands more about security in a relationship...and the lack of it...than you could ever imagine.”

“Then why do you belittle and ridicule it?” Kendall asked taken back by the sincerity of his answer and the flicker of loneliness she saw in his eyes.

“I’m not.” Max answered quickly as he leaned forward once again locking eyes with hers. Even Max was shocked by his own sincerity and openness as he began to speak. “I think one of the most precious gifts you can give to the person you’re committed to is your full, undivided attention and the assurance of knowing they are the only one in your heart and mind. That’s not the same as having a security blanket. What a lot of people don’t understand is that before you can have real security in a relationship, you have to be willing to take a risk. Risk takers with true love waiting for them demand it. Blankets don’t.”

“And which are you?” Kendall asked as she folded her hands on the table in front of her and leaned forward a challenge waiting for him in her eyes.

Max grinned slightly as he crossed his arms in front of him on the table mirroring her own posture. "Oh, I think you know. In fact, I could ask you the same thing…only I think I already know the answer to that too. So, I guess the real question would be...who burned you so badly that you deny your true nature? That you're no longer willing to risk your heart on true love…the kind that comes around once in a lifetime?"

Unnerved but unwilling to let it show, Kendall deftly sidestepped his question and decided to raise one of her own. Her coy smile was not lost on Max. “What makes you think I’m not…with Sean?”

“Your eyes.”

Kendall blinked and looked away stunned at his simply, penetrating answer. Looking back up at him she smiled uncomfortably. "You're rather nosey aren't you?"

"I prefer to think of it as having a healthy dose of curiosity mixed with an astute sense of observation." Was Max's quick return as he continued his pursuit. "Let me ask you something else. How well does your boyfriend know you?"

"What? What kind of question is that?" She as with a perplexed look on her face. This man was full of questions and she never really quite knew where he was taking her with the answers.

"A simple one." Max retorted with a shrug. "Unless, of course, he doesn't know you and you just don't want to admit…"

Kendall let out a frustrated sigh as she leaned back. "Ok. Fine." She said as she ran her fingers through her hair before launching into a lie she'd tried to tell herself many times. She sighed again as she looked back at him and saw his raised eyebrow, "He knows me, ok? Look, we've been dating for 2 years. I think in that amount of time he knows me as well as anyone ever could."

"Is that so?" Max asked with an upraised eyebrow.

"Yes. That's so." Kendall responded with a little more force than she'd intended while crossing her arms stubbornly in front of her.

Max had to hold back a chuckle as his eyes began to sparkle with amusement. She was so adorable trying to convince him of something he wasn't all that sure she believed herself. She was definitely a stubborn one. So much so that he just couldn't help himself from baiting her even more.

He cleared his throat as he became serious once again his voice low and probing. "Alright, then. Tell me something else. Can he tell what you're thinking by just looking into your eyes? Does he know your deepest, darkest secrets? How about your most treasured dreams? The ones you've had all of your life but no one seems to know how to make come true. And what about what it takes to make your eyes shine with passion and fire. Or how to make your heart race with a touch. Does he know the secret to that too? Or have you hidden all of that from him somehow?"

Max paused a moment noticing how her expression had changed once again. Where stubbornness had claimed her moments before, her eyes now held a hint of uncertainty and longing that couldn't be mistaken. A longing for the kind of love that could do all of those things...a love she clearly didn't possess…no matter how hard she tried to convince him she did.

Kendall's eyes had begun to mist unexpectedly as his words began hitting their intended mark…her heart. He decided to press his luck once more while she was at least open to listening as he added, "Does he know who you dream about at night? For that matter, does he know who you were daydreaming about just a few minutes ago? Or was he too busy rambling about his own problems to even notice you were no longer in this world with him?"

Kendall looked up at him with complete surprise written all over her face. He'd seen that? How had he known she'd been daydreaming from half a room away? And did he guess the images in her mind or was he merely posing a question unaware that he had been the object of her thoughts? In the next instant she masked her surprise with indifference and quickly blinked the prickles out of her eyes, finally finding the voice to speak.

How this complete stranger could waltz into her life and open her heart open with a single look was beyond her. But that's exactly what he'd done and now it had to stop. "Maybe he didn't notice because there was nothing to see."

Honing in on his target, Max shook his head slowly as his eyes locked with hers in unforgiving seriousness. This was one prey that would not get away. "No, it was there. I saw it. You're eyes were shining as brightly as the stars in the velvety darkness of an ocean night sky. Now the only question is…who made them shine? Because is certainly wasn't Sean."

Kendall smiled suddenly as she tried shrugging off his questions. "Maybe I was dreaming of that nice plate of chicken pasta I'd just ordered."

Max grinned in response, recognizing her tactic of changing subjects all to well. He'd found himself doing that on many occasions when anyone got to close to matters of the heart. The more he learned about her, the more he realized just how much they were alike. Unwilling to let the conversation go at just that, he responded back. "Maybe."

Max nodded as he looked down at the table for a moment trying to form his next words carefully. He looked back up at her his amber eyes full of an emotion she couldn't quite place. When he spoke it was as if he were speaking as much to himself as he was to her. "You know, you'll never find it. That kind of love you're dreaming of. Not until you're willing to be vulnerable enough to let someone else know you…the real you…inside and out. It will allude you…until you're willing to take that risk with your heart."

Surprised by the frankness of his words and the openness of his expression, but unwilling to let it affect her, she leveled her gaze at him and quipped rather coldly. "Well, this is rich. Getting love advise from what I hear is the playboy of the western world."

Max smiled slyly at her reference to his status as a playboy. Boy, were those stories over-rated. Sure, he was constantly surrounded by beautiful women, but that was mainly because few held his attention after the first date. None of them were ever serious and they certainly couldn't be even remotely considered love. Maybe his current romantic status was precisely why he was qualified to recognize true love when he saw it. And he couldn't say he saw it in Kendall's eyes when she looked Sean Graham. "I agree with you. The irony of me, the 'Playboy of the Western World', as you put it explaining love...well, let's just say it isn't lost on me."

He leaned back and eyed her for a moment before venturing further into this newly charted territory not sure what kind of response he would get. "Look. All I'm saying is that I've seen women in love before. Truly, madly, completely in love. There's a certain look in their eyes. In fact, you can put a woman in love in a room full of men, and every time, without fail, I can tell which man holds the key to her heart."

"Without fail, huh?" Kendall's lips quirked upward into an amused smile, but wariness ruled her eyes. "You are rather arrogant, aren't you?"

"No. I'm just observant." Max replied with confidence. He leaned across the table, his voice lowering intimately as his eyes began to sparkle with secret knowledge. "Want to know the secret? Want to know how I can tell?"

Despite her better judgement, Kendall couldn't resist. She leaned forward, her eyes bright with curiosity. Her breath faintly passing slightly parted lips in captivated anticipation. The expression on her face like a little child eager to hear the story of a lifetime. A knowing smile shadowed Max's lips as his eyes slowly roamed her face taking in every smooth, sculptured curve. With her porcelain skin, her midnight eyes and those strawberry lips, she truly was a work of art. And the amazing thing was…she didn't even know it.

When he finally spoke his voice was soft, seductively pulling her further into a world of enchantment. "Together, their eyes speak without words. They feel without touching. They sense…without seeing. It's like he's her best friend…the other half of her soul. Her passion. Her reason. Her life. All rolled into one."

A softness crept into Max's eyes and Kendall felt herself once more spinning out of control and falling headlong into a mesmerizing silver web of magic. As the gentle prick of Max's words deftly penetrated the tiny pieces of a heart too broken to feel alive, Kendall felt a breath of fresh air rush into her soul. It was the fresh air of healing. And hope. Dreams. Possibilities made real. And they were all being sewn deep in the softest parts of her heart. Parts she thought she'd forgotten years ago…

"He’s the beat of her heart, the breath in her lungs and the blood in her veins. He grabs her attention from the first hello, beyond the last good-bye and even claims a place in her dreams." Max shook his head, the sincerity of his apology shooting straight from the depths of his eyes to the hollowest parts of her soul. Echoing her loneliness. Screaming out an emptiness she thought had been filled. "Now, I'm sorry, Kendall…try as you might…I just don't see it in your eyes when you look at Sean."

Kendall looked down at the table knowing his words were hitting way too close to home. He was right. She'd seen love like that and it had sent a pang of envy shooting through her every time. She swallowed hard and blinked back the sting at the back of her eyes. But that was the fairy tale kind of love. A love like that wasn't meant for her. It never had been. It never would be.

And it was time to stop wishing it were…

Shaking off the spell Max had cast around the table, Kendall's voice was trembling with uncertainty when she began her protest. A protest Max had seen coming when he saw her shoulders square and her chin raise defiantly. Despite her inner struggle, she was stubbornly standing her ground. In a strange way, Max was proud of her. He really hadn't expected anything less. Again, she didn't fail to disappoint.

"You don't know the first thing about me or my relationship with Sean. You've known me less than 2 hours and you think you have the right to come in here and tell me that I don't love a man that I've been dating for 2 years. Now, who's jumping to conclusions and misjudging?" Kendall silently wished there were more conviction in her voice than what even she had heard, but she didn't let on.

Sensing that he was dangerously close to crossing the line with this particular line of questioning, Max decided it was time to give her a small victory. So he took a step back. "I'm not saying you don't love him. I'm just saying it's not the love you're capable of."

"And what kind of love would that be?" She asked, crossing her arms in front of her in an unconscious effort to shield herself from whatever truth he might have discovered in the depths of her eyes.

Nothing surprised her more than his response.

"The fairy tale." Max made the statement simply and honestly. He'd known it from the moment he'd seen her face. Something deep within him whispered that this woman deserved it all. The words flowed, their intrinsic truth spilling into the air surrounding them. "The kind that makes you risk losing everything just to be together, yet you risk it anyway because it's the single most powerful thing you've ever known. The kind that demands your all…your passion, your fire…even your vulnerability. The kind that makes you look at him like he's your very next breath." He reached over and for the first time gently took her hand in his. "Now, tell me, Kendall. Tell me that's what you have with Sean Graham."

Kendall swallowed hard as she felt her heart stop with his touch. The gaze from those fathomless eyes was so penetrating she felt as if he were cutting her open and pulling out the very truths from her heart. What was he doing to her? How could he read the secrets desires of her heart so clearly? How could he know her dreams with just one look in her eyes?

"Ahem. Excuse me, Kendall."

Kendall pulled her gaze away from Max's face to see Todd, the waiter, standing by the table with a phone in his hand. "Yes, Todd?" She prompted, her voice sounding very shaky and strange to her own ears.

"You have a call. It's an emergency."

"Thank you." She said as she took the phone from him. "Hello. This is Kendall." She listened intently to the person on the other end. "Let me guess....Grace." She sighed out loud. "Alright, listen, Cindy, I need you to do me a huge favor. Don't let her leave. I don't know. Make something up...I'll be there as soon as I can. Bye." She put the phone down and immediately began to get up.

Max grabbed her hand and looked up at her. "Is everything ok?"

"No. Everything's not ok." She snapped at him as she pulled her hand away. "Look, Mr. Evans, as far as I'm concerned, you can live in a dream world with that fairy tale love you described all you like. But when it comes to real relationship analysis, if I were you, I wouldn't quit my day job. And as for being a risk taker…don't kid yourself. It's nothing but talk. When it comes to love, you're just as scared as the rest of us." Tears of frustration were beginning to well up in her eyes. "Now if you'll excuse me..."

She turned on her heel, gathered her bag and rushed out the door, her absence hitting Max with a loneliness unlike anything he had ever known.

Tbc....
posted on 21-Oct-2001 7:52:29 AM
(Author's note: Song excerpts from Jewel's song "Barcelona")

~chapter 5~

Max was restless.

So, he set off on a fact-finding mission.

After lunch, he took time to scope out the town of New Haven, including the layout of the docks. It wasn't a bad town...as little towns go. In fact, there were some parts that were downright delightful. It was just the right size. Not the large bustling metropolis that New York City was, but at the same time there was certainly enough breathing room so that not every person you met knew your name. He could see how someone could choose to make this their home and want to fight for it with everything they had.

An unbidden image of Nate's face flashed before Max's mind when he thought of the concept of fighting. He pushed the image away immediately. There were just some things in life that weren't meant to be relived. Or dealt with. Until absolutely necessary. His past with Nate was one of them. Kendall had bought him a little time. He was determined to make sure he'd accomplished his goals here in New Haven before that time ran out.

If he didn't, he just might be forced to open doors that had been sealed tight in the deepest, most forlorn places of his heart and mind. That simply wasn't going to happen. If, on the off chance, this little 'war' with Kendall ran longer than expected, Max would just have to do something he had never done before--concede defeat by forfeit. No game…no person…was worth facing those dark lurking shadows of a life he'd practically crawled his way out of years ago.

He simply would not be put through that hell again. For any one. Or any reason.

Max let out a deep, solitary sigh. As he sat watching the river drift by, his thoughts turned once more to Kendall. She certainly was an intriguing woman. Beautiful. Full of spirit. Head-strong. Intelligent. Witty. And tricky.

Max smiled to himself as he shook his head, amusement covering layers of determination. He had thought by showing up unannounced at her supervisor's doorstep, he'd had a chance of throwing her off her game enough to weasel a dinner date out of her at least. Then he could work his usual magic. And at first, he could tell she had been unnerved at seeing him there. But he had to hand it to her, she recovered quickly and won the hand once again with the fake lunch invitation. Well, that just meant he'd have to be more on his toes. He'd get her next go around. He was sure.

In fact, he'd already put his victory into motion. While touring the town of New Haven, Max made a point of finding out where Rosie's diner was. In fact, it was the first place he'd searched for and found. Not only was he spurred on by the mission of dropping off the package he'd brought to lunch for Kendall as well as getting a feel of where she called home, but his growling stomach told him that food had better not be far away. Especially since he had teased it with the idea of having lunch at the The Bluff Café only to disappear faster than fog on a sunny day the moment V returned to the table.

He'd been surprised by the protectiveness that the diner's owner, Rosie, showed when he began questioning her about Kendall. Because of that fierce protectiveness, he was also surprise that he walked away with as much information as he did. Must have been his upbringing that pulled him through once again. His mom always did tell him he could find the soft spot in any woman's heart as long as he complimented her cooking. It had taken 3 bowls of Rosie's chili, but he'd finally won her over enough to get the required information he was looking for.

And that particular information was that Kendall Blake was 25 and single. Had lived in New Haven for about 5 years. Worked at the New Haven Children's Center as volunteer coordinator and assistant to Claire Harmon, the Center's Chief of Staff. She also worked part time at a small but booming record company called MLK Records with her best friend Maria DeLuca Guerin.

Kendall was dating Sean Graham. Due to Kendall's responsibilities at the Center, they didn't go out often, but when they did meet for dates it was in the diner's lobby or she would meet him at the Graham mansion at the edge of town. Rosie seemed to like Sean, but wasn't that much in favor of a Kendall-Sean pairing for some reason. Rosie wouldn't elaborate, but Max could tell from her reactions to his questions that that relationship was as dead as he had supposed. Kendall had few but well chosen friends. Was quiet and sweet and never bothered anyone or caused any problems. 'Mainly keeps to herself'...that's what Rosie had said.

What seemed to be glaringly absent was the description of the woman he'd met three days ago. The one that spoke with such wit, perception, passion and fire. The woman who could level him with a seductively challenging look and keep going as if her actions had no affect on him at all. The one that was tricky enough to send her receptionist to lunch instead of showing herself, but was also transparent enough to allow flashes of pain show in her eyes whenever the past was mentioned. The woman who had fearlessly marched into his board room and declared war on him.

Max grinned devilishly to himself as he thought about the package he'd dropped off. He had actually planned on giving it to Kendall at lunch, but under the circumstances decided to deliver it to her front door instead. He chuckled when remembering the note he'd attached to it.

Their brief discussion of love gave Max the distinct impression there was much more hidden behind that forced contentment she tried to make him see than what met the eyes. So he'd decided to turn the tables on her a little and claim that she was actually the one with something to hide. Attached to the wool sweater he gave her was the note, "Now who's hiding in sheep's clothing? Forever, Your Adonis"

The fact that she was 'dating' Sean Graham was an added twist he hadn't expected. Especially since Sean was one of the major players in the EMG docks plan. Which explained how she knew so much about EMG's empire. He wondered just how much Sean confided in Kendall about his business. His guess, at least on this one project, was not much.

Her fierceness in fighting him for 'her' children made him believe she had no idea that Evans Inc wasn't the only contender for the property the Center rested on. But he could be wrong. It could be she was playing a part that Sean convinced her to play to flush Max out. Although, he was very doubtful about that. There was no mistaking the sincerity of her concern or passion where these particular children were concerned. Still, it gave him yet another reason to be on his toes.

He also started to wonder exactly what kind of relationship the two of them really had. She said she loved Sean, but her eyes lacked that certain spark when she looked at him. The one that told the world whom her heart belonged to and that it couldn't be stolen no matter what method the intended thief employed. Whatever their relationship, he knew it certainly wasn't what she had been trying to lead him to believe earlier. He had a strong feeling he'd hit the nail on the head when he said Sean was her security blanket. Max smiled slyly to himself. This was turning into an even more interesting adventure than he'd anticipated.

As quickly as his smile appeared it faded as his thoughts turned toward their conversation. What exactly was she doing to him anyway? He hadn't thought about let alone spoken the word 'love' with so much conviction and belief in years. Lately, he'd even spoken it with as much cynicism as he'd accused Kendall of earlier.

He leaned forward putting his elbows on his knees and shook his head slightly as he looked out over the water. There was just something about her eyes. The way they reached deep down into his soul and not only spoke to, but actually breathed life back into that romantic part of his heart that he thought had been buried forever. The part he vowed would never see the light of day again.

Max let out a sigh. Maybe Barbara was right. Maybe he was about to take the biggest risk of his life. That thought alone sent a shiver of excitement...and fear...down his spine.

As the sun began to lower in the sky, Max decided to take a walk a little further down the docks. As he came around the corner of a building he spotted a familiar figure standing on a nearby pier looking out at the water. Her dark head was bent, the long silky hair covering her face, but he would recognize that figure anywhere. And by her posture Max could tell that she was crying.

Taking a few slow, cautious steps closer, his heart stopped cold the moment the sound of her tears actually made it to his ears. It was the loneliest sound he'd ever heard. Questions immediately began to bombard him. Why was she crying? Was it because of him? Something he might have said? A past he might have reminded her of? Or had it been that call she received that made her shut the door on him so quickly and run?

Not for the first time since meeting her, Max Evans wasn't sure what to do. Should he approach her? Or was this a pain she'd deal with better on her own? He certainly understood the need to do that. Years of hiding his own pain had taught him the treasure of not letting people too close. Gauging the results of their last discussion, most likely she would consider it an embarrassment to be found in such a vulnerable state, especially by 'the enemy'? But for some reason the very idea of her crying for any reason sent chills down his spine and made him long to take away her sadness.

He couldn't just walk away...

Just as he was about ready to take a step forward a second figure joined her on the docks causing Max to step back into the shadow of the building. She turned instinctively toward the man as he enveloped her in a hug, her tears falling on his suit coat. They stood like that a moment. Her leaning and him wrapping her in comfort. Once her tears had eased, she pulled away and looked up into his face. "Thanks for meeting me here, Michael. I just...I just needed to be with someone who knew..."

He flashed a small smile and shrugged as his brown eyes roamed her face with concern. "It's ok, I understand. So, talk to me. Tell me what happened."

Kendall let out a sigh as she wiped her eyes. "I got a call from Memorial Hospital about a case I've been dealing with for a while now. A woman a little older than me. She's married and her husband abuses her. This is the 4th time I've talked to her. She won't budge, Michael. She says he loves her and he doesn't mean to do it..."

Kendall turned away from Michael and walked over to look at the water. "She just reminds me so much of me, you know? When I was with him. I was sitting there listening to her and it all came back. The fear. The desperation. The utter hopelessness. You know, it's funny. When I was with him, I was so afraid I'd lose myself if I lost him. Then when I left, I used to say I lost myself when I was with him. But I don't even think that's true. I don't think I knew who I was back then. In changing who I was, I actually found me."

Michael came up behind her and wrapped his arms around her shoulder pulling her back toward him. "That's not true. You always knew who you were. He just made you forget for a while and almost destroyed you in the process. But you brought yourself back in the end and that's all that's important."

Kendall smiled wryly at Michael as she turned to look at him. "Did I?" She let out a shaky breath. Her gaze traveled from Michael's concerned confused expression to the setting sun. "I met someone the other day. He...he challenged me in ways I've never been challenged before, Michael. He saw things I didn't even want to see. He made me think things and feel..." she took a deep breath and continued. "He made me wonder if who I am now is the best I can ever be."

She looked back up at Michael as her voice cracked. "If it is, then 'he' really did manage to destroy me. 'He' really did win."

Michael put his hands on her shoulders and turned her toward him. "No. Now you listen to me. You're alive. You're safe. You've rebuilt your life. And it's a pretty good one." He reached up and brushed away one lone tear that fell down her cheeks. "You have a home. And a job. And friends who adore you..."

Kendall nodded her head silently in agreement before interjecting quietly. "But what about love? Am I never to experience the best it can be because I've already known the worst?" She shook herself as if that thought alone was too much to bear, then quickly forced a brave smile to her lips as she ran her fingers through her hair. "Pay no attention to me. I'm just being overly sensitive today. I guess seeing her really took it out of me."

"I'm so sorry. I'm really sorry that you're constantly reminded of that time." Michael said as he searched for the right words to say to the hurting heart standing before him. "Are you sure you don't want another job doing something else? Something less painful? I could get you a position..."

Kendall put her hand up to his mouth to stop his offer as she shook her head. "Who would be there to stop the children's pain?"

"You know, you have to be the strongest woman I've ever met. Besides Maria, of course." Michael smiled.

Kendall chuckled as she wiped her eyes clear of any residual tears. "But, of course."

Michael became serious again. "But strong or not, you can't heal all of the pains of the world. It's just impossible to do alone."

She smiled up at him, her tears having dried now. "You know, I'll never really be alone. Ever again."

Michael shook his head again in awe as he pulled her into another hug. "I love you, kiddo."

"I love you too, Michael." She whispered against his shoulder.

"Hey, I've got an idea. After work, why don't you come over to the house and have dinner with Maria and me?"

Kendall started to shake her head. "No, Michael."

"Awww, come on. Why not? What better place to be than with friends when you're feeling low like this?"

"I appreciate what you're trying to do, Michael, but...really, I know where I need to be tonight. I think you do too."

Michael nodded in understanding. "Alright, but remember we're just a phone call away if those demons start to taunt you and you don't have a place to hide."

"I know." Kendall hugged him again then slapped him playfully on the arm. "Thanks for meeting me, bro."

"I wouldn't be anywhere else when you need me, Liz. Just remember that, ok?"

Max's eyes narrowed as he watched the exchange. No. Wait a minute. That's not right. His hearing must be playing tricks on him. Instinctively, he knew it wasn’t. Was it possible? Could it be that she wasn't...? Did...did Michael Guerin just call her Liz??
~~~~~~~~
After the day he'd had, Max had no idea why he could have possibly imagined that finding his lodgings would have been an easy task. Barbara had been out sick the day that the arrangements for his stay in New Haven had been handled. So instead of being set up in the penthouse suite of the New Haven Hotel as would have been his standard choice, he'd been sent on a wild goose chase looking for an out of the way bed and breakfast somewhere along the outskirts of town.

He pulled up into the front of the main building and sat for a moment looking at the sign. "You've got to be kidding me." Max said out loud before he read the sign. "Come discover your dreams at the Hidden Paths resort. Wonderful honeymoon cottages and romantic weekends.' Great. Just great. I'm here on a business deal and she's set me up in a haven for honeymooners."

Why couldn't just one thing go right for him today? Max sighed as he got out of the car and walked into the building muttering something about being trapped in New York's version of Mayberry.

The front desk clerk looked up and greeted Max with a smile. "May I help you?" She asked sweetly.

"Yeah, I'm supposed to have a reservation. Evans. Maxwell Evans." Max said wearily and somewhat self-consciously as he glanced around at the few couples he saw milling around the lobby. Max shook his head. They were either holding hands or had their arms wrapped around each other, gazing into each other's eyes as if no one else in the world existed. Oh, someone was definitely going to pay for this one. Max thought wryly to himself.

The clerk looked in her computer. "Yes, here it is, Mr. Evans. Cottage number 8. It's the one around the back. The furthest from the main house. You're assistant wanted to be sure you had the quietest. You can drive around the back to get there. There is a path from the front that leads directly to the house here for breakfasts and dinners. And there's a path that leads from the back door to the garden. If you have any questions please give us a ring."

But Max barely heard her. In the moments that he'd been glancing around him, his gaze fell on one of the most hauntingly beautiful paintings he'd ever seen.

Max loved art. He often went to galleries to view new and old work to add to the collection he had in many of his homes. The styles varied and he liked them for many reasons. Some for the color while others for the overall effect. But this was the first time he really felt that instantaneous 'something' that pulled him in like a magnet.

He stood in front of it having been drawn into it before he was aware what was happening. What was it about this painting that touched him? He shook his head slightly. He couldn't quite place it. It wasn't as if there was anything different in the content or the use of colors. They were mostly pastels with a few strokes of boldness coming through in the deeper, darker colors chosen.

Maybe it was the scene itself. It was an ocean scene with one lone figure sunk down in the sand as dark skies flew above her. It was a woman with long dark hair being swept back from her face by the wild ocean breezes. Her back was to the observer so her expression had to be guessed. By her posture one could only assume it was an expression of great longing. Her arms were stretched outward toward the sea and the setting sun...the only bit of light left in her darkening world.

What was this feeling he had? An intense sadness followed by sudden irrepressible hope. As if her act of reaching out alone would bring the world she so desperately longed for closer to her. That by sheer willpower and strength she could stop the sun from setting.

Max's thoughts were interrupted by the sound of a voice at his elbow. "Beautiful isn't it? In a sad, haunting kind of way."

Max nodded mutely unable to tear his eyes away from the painting. "It's extraordinary." He whispered.

He suddenly turned to observe the woman standing next to him. She was in her mid-forties with dark hair and flashing dark eyes to match. The Latin blood so evidently flowing through her veins gave Max the impression that she was one spirited ball of fire once she got going. She had clearly been a complete knockout when she was younger. Not that she wasn't attractive now. She was very attractive and yet motherly somehow. The smile that touched her lips as she gazed at the painting before her was sad but held a hint of warmth and comfort.

She turned her gaze on him, her smile broadening to reveal the crinkles around her eyes. As she held out her hand, she introduced herself with a heavy Italian accent. "Hi, I'm Angelina. Angelina Bailey, but my friends call me Angel. I own this place." She said with a wave of her hand. She smiled at the surprised look on Max's face as he shook her hand. "Let me guess. You expected something more like Corleone or Rosini, right?"

Max started to chuckle. "Well, you have to admit your heritage clearly shows on your face. Maxwell Evans, but my friends call me Max. Nice to meet you."

Angel nodded at his introduction. "And you’re land of origin sounds faintly in your voice. Let me guess...Mid-West, right? But you've been away for quite a while."

Max nodded. "Uh-huh. Born and raised till I was 8 years old. Then our family packed up and moved to Alaska. I go back every year though. I'm surprised you even picked it up. Most people say I no longer have an accent."

Angel shrugged her shoulders. "Just the barest hint and I have a gift for picking up on hints." She added with a wink.

Max smiled then turned back toward the painting. "So, this painting...I don't see a signature. Do you know the artist?"

Angel nodded. "Yes, I do. Local artist. Likes to keep to herself."

"Is all of her work like this one?"

Angel thought for a moment before answering. "The talent is the same. So is the style. But the content varies. This was her last, I believe."

"So, she doesn't paint anymore?" Max asked as he stuck his hands in his pockets.

"No. She gave it up some years ago."

"Why? I mean, she obviously had incredible talent..."

"She still does." Angel turned to look at him with a twinkle beginning to shine in her dark eyes.

"Sometimes it's not the talent that leaves the artist...it's the inspiration."

Max studied the painting for a moment before venturing a guess. "Broken heart?"

This boy is sharp. Angel watched Max carefully out of the corner of her eye before nodding her head solemnly. "Along with broken dreams and a broken spirit."

"I'd like to meet her." Max said suddenly surprising even himself.

Angel smiled indulgently. "Unfortunately, that won't be possible. She's a little on the eccentric side. Doesn't like to meet new people and certainly not to discuss her work."

Not willing to take 'no' for an answer, Max smiled that smile he always got when he had his heart set on something, his eyes flashing with determination. "Anything's possible...for a price."

Angel chuckled. "Her price is so high not even Bill Gates' net worth multiplied by 100 could make a down payment."

Max grinned and reached into his pocket pulling out a notepad and pen. He quickly wrote something down then ripped a page off and handed it to her. "Would that be down payment enough?"

Angel's eyes grew wide when she saw the figure he was willing to pay just to meet the artist of this one painting. "You're serious, aren't you?"

"As a heart attack. Show her the sum and see what she says. You can get back to me when she's decided. You know where I'll be staying." He said with a grin before turning back to look once
more at the painting that had so completely captured his attention. "Simply extraordinary." Max whispered with a slight shake of his head.

He quickly turned to Angel and nodded, "It was a pleasure meeting you." He said before walking out the door whistling a tune and twirling his keys around his finger, leaving Angel wondering what just hit her.
~~~~~~~~~~~
Max paced his room impatiently waiting for the phone to ring. "Come on, Alex. Call me back..."

The phone rang and Max dove for it landing on the bed with a bounce as he did so. "Hello?" Max grinned as he heard the familiar voice on the other line. "Well, it's about time you called back. Oh, I see. So this distraction that kept you from calling…are we talking a literal bombshell or the beautiful kind with long dark hair and curves that don't quit?"

Max started to laugh. "Yeah, I remember what it's like. So busy chasing the real criminals you never have time to chase those beautiful thieves that try to steal your heart."

"Me? Come on, Alex, you know my criminal-chasing days are over. And the thieves must be hiding because I haven't had my heart stolen in quite a while. Uh-huh. Hey, how are your researching skills? Still as excellent as before or have they body-trained the brains out of you?"
Max laughed again. "Yeah, I know they don't expect computer geeks to exercise anything but their brains. I know you won't believe this, but I was the only one that managed to maintain both brains and body despite their best efforts." A chuckle filled the room. "No. You just have to remember I always was the exception the rule."

Max laughed before sobering a little. "Yeah. Life on the outside is treating me fine. Actually that's why I'm calling. Well, I've run into someone. A woman." Max grinned again. "Yes, she's beautiful and yes, she's caught my attention, but that's not why I'm calling."

Max leaned against the pillows propped up along the headboard of his bed. "She's pretty connected to a couple of business rivals of mine. We're competing for the same space on a deal I'm working on. Apparently, she's not all she's cracked up to be. Can you help me find out what her story is?"

Max's grinned again after listening to his friend a moment. "I knew I'd come to the right place. Alright. Her name is Kendall Blake. She lives in New Haven, CT. She's been here about 5 years. The thing is…I overheard one of my competitors, Michael Guerin, call her by the name Liz. I need everything you can get on Kendall and any and all friends, relations, acquaintances...anyone...that Michael Guerin has ever known by the name of Liz..."

Max let out a sigh of relief after hanging up the phone with his friend. If anyone could find out the scoop on Kendall/Liz...Alex Whitman was that person.

Max looked around his room. Good. That had been taken care of. He really didn't feel like unpacking. He'd already checked in for his messages before he put in the call to Alex. So, he certainly didn't feel like doing any more work. Especially not after the day he'd had. His plan to ambush Kendall today had backfired on him and sent him on a journey of surprises that kept piling up one after another. For some reason, he felt exhausted, yet restless and listless all at the same time.

What he really needed was some air. That's what he'd do. He'd go for a walk in the garden. It was dark outside, but that didn't matter. Max enjoyed walking at night. It had a calming effect on him somehow. He quickly changed clothes then headed out the back door in search of some solace.

As he took the garden path he could still smell the aroma of flowers in the air. It was a delightfully calming smell and instantly put him at ease. He wandered further into the garden and spotted an old wooden gate illuminated by the moon and half covered by bushes and leaves. Curiosity getting the better of him, Max pushed his way through the brambles and managed to open the creaking door enough to slip through.

On the other side he found what once must have been a well-worn path but was now overgrown with weeds and creeping vines. Max carefully picked his way through the path his mind able to concentrate for once on something other than Kendall or Liz. He wasn't quite sure what to call her. Suddenly, he stopped short and listened.

Wait. Was that...singing he heard? Max shook his head in an effort to clear any cobwebs that might be lurking in his brain so he could be sure. Yes. It was definitely a voice. A magnificently beautiful voice. Haunting and low and full of strength. A sudden urge to see the owner of such a voice propelled him forward through the weeds.

Max pulled himself up short when he abruptly came to the end of the path and the edge of a clearing. The clearing was a perfect circle and looked like it had once been laid out for use in parties and social get-togethers. In the center was a gazebo, weathered and worn but still strong enough to hold and protect the wisp of a woman he saw swaying to music that surely was playing in her head because he heard nothing but the sound of her voice sounding clearly through the night.

Her slim, graceful back was to him and she was wrapped in a white filmy shawl from the top of her head to the middle of her back where it was lost in the fullness of her white flowing skirt. The whole effect gave her a shimmering, unearthly glow as the moonlight shone down on her perfect figure. She looked like one of those mystical fairies pictured in children's books. Since her hair was covered by the lacy shawl Max couldn't make out the exact color of her hair, but it looked dark. Long and silky. Like a waterfall of chocolate. That was, until the pale moon transformed the lace into a magical veil of silver.

Max was instantly enraptured as he unconsciously held his breath, the words of her song beginning to reach his consciousness and melding into his soul tearing it to shreds with each haunting note that was sung…

"…look out stranger. There's a dark cloud moving in. But if you could hear the voice in my heart it would tell you...I'm afraid I am alone." Max could literally hear the heartbreak in her voice before the plea of her heart escaped from her lips as she wrapped her arms tightly around her chest and continued to sway.

"Won't somebody please hold me. Release me. Show me--the meaning of mercy. Let me loose." Her arms released into the air as she suddenly began to spin around slowly in the middle of the gazebo keeping in perfect time to the humming she had begun. Her face was bowed to the ground so he still couldn't see her features, but there seemed something familiar about her.

Her arms slowly dropped to her side as the last notes faded into the night. Her back was turned to him once again as she began to sway once more her soulful anthem continuing...

"Silver paranoid. I'm blending, I'm blurring, I'm bleeding into the scenery. Loving someone else is always so much easier. I hold myself hostage in the mirror." She once again pulled her arms close to her body embracing herself with the comfort she longed for but couldn't seem to find. "But if you could hear the voice in my heart it would tell you...I'm tired of feeling this way. God, won't you please hold me. Release me. Show me the meaning of mercy..."

Through the blanket of magic that had fallen over the clearing, Max felt his heart rip wide open. It was as if she were singing directly to him. Describing him. Revealing herself. Mating their two souls in a mesh of lyrics and melody that couldn't be ignored, so clear was the call for comfort and release. Their roles were clear: He was the stranger. She was the storm begging to be rescued.

The electricity in the air crackled in time to the beating of his heart…the rhythm of the nymph's song. Her infinite sadness floated to him like leaves on a soft breeze and Max felt his blood begin to stir with anticipation and need. Desire. To touch the ghost. To hold the dream. To embrace the melancholy angel till her loneliness melted away in the heat of a passion he'd long since forgotten he was capable of--the passion of selflessness.

Max took an unconscious step forward longing to be the one person to make the haunting sadness so evident in her voice disappear. The moment he moved, his foot stepped on a branch. The cracking noise echoed through the night causing the unknown singer to stop immediately and turn in his direction. The shadows of the gazebo cloaked her face in darkness so that her features were still hidden from him.

In the next instant sudden fear gripped her as she turned and began to run away from him. Max stepped out into the circle and reached for her afraid to lose sight of this mysterious woman.

"No! NO! Don't run! I just want to know your name..."

He tried to follow her but she was too quick and before he knew it this singing angel had vanished into the night leaving him cold and alone.
~~~~~~~~~~
Angel was quietly rocking in her chair going over the menus for the following week when there was a quick tap at the door before it swung open. Angel looked up from her menus to greet her night visitor. Seeing the flushed look on her face, Angel's smile disappeared quickly. "Honey, are you alright? Did something happen?"

She slipped into the door and closed it quickly locking it behind her and breathing a sigh of relief as she leaned against it. "A man." She tried to steady her heavy breathing from her midnight run. "He...he saw me at the gazebo.."

Angel sat up straight. "Who was it? Did he recognize you?"

She shook her head, her long dark hair bouncing with each movement. "I don't know who it was. And believe me I didn't stick around long enough to find out." She added as she dropped the lacy shawl on the couch and slumped down into it to catch her breath. "Man, what a day!"

The twinkle in Angel's eye returned when she realized the immediate crisis was over. "Really? So, what happened to you?"

She rolled her eyes and let out a sigh. "I'd rather not."

"That bad, huh?" Angel said with a grin. "Well, I had quite a day too. In fact, there's a part of it that should really interest you."

"Oh, really? Do tell." She said as she rolled her eyes again recognizing the look in Angel's eyes and knowing which direction this was going. She was probably going to tell her about another 'great catch' she'd met today. One that she should 'definitely meet'.

Angel took a deep breath and began. "Well, he's 6", handsome as all get out, very rich, and...he loved your paintings."

"Oh, no. Not this again." She groaned as she covered her face and leaned further back into the couch.

"Uh-huh. This again." Angel leaned forward. "Honey, you have so much talent. It's such a shame to let all of it go to waste..."

She sighed deeply. "Angel. You know I can't. I haven't painted anything new in years. Even if I could...it wouldn't do any good. Really. Think about it. Should I throw myself into painting for what? So they can hang in an out of the way bed and breakfast or better yet so they never get finished? I know that's not what you want for me."

"Neither is singing to the stars at night when you should be singing to crowds of adoring fans." Angel responded quietly.

She let out a sigh as she ran her fingers through her hair. "I know. And I usually don't. I just...I just needed to be me. Just for tonight."

Angel leaned forward. "Don't you see? You shouldn't have to pick nights to be yourself. You deserve to be yourself all the time. You deserve to live out your dreams. You deserve...so much more than what you have. You both do..."

Leaning forward and taking Angel's hands in her own, she stated calmly, "I have the life I chose. It's not perfect. And it's not the life I wanted, but it keeps us safe. As for my dreams, well I don't have any...not for myself...not anymore. They all died when I met him. I've resolved myself to that fact. Maybe you should try to do the same."

Angel looked down at her hands being held by those she considered much stronger than her own. "I'll try, but it's not easy for a meddlesome match-maker like myself." Her face lit up with a grin in an attempt to change the subject. "He really is handsome, you know. Do you want to hear about him?"

"No!" She shook her dark hair and laughed. "I've had enough of handsome young strangers for one day, thank you very much."

"Really? Tell me." Angel prompted eagerly.

She laughed again at Angel's obvious excitement trying to dodge the barrage of questions she
knew would soon follow. "You'd never know I was dating someone the way you're acting."

"Who? Oh...him. He's more...how do I put this? I see him as being more...safe and convenient for you than anything else." Angel said not realizing the impact it would have on her young listener.

She blinked and looked away as if she'd been hit. That was the second time today someone had said that to her. Angel noticed and looked concerned. "Liz? Did I say something wrong?"

Liz looked up at her still a little dazed. "No, of course not. I know Sean isn't your favorite person in the world. It's just...well...someone else said the exact same thing to me today.

Angel's eyebrow raised accenting the questions in her eyes. "Really? And who was this incredibly wise person?"

Liz rolled her eyes. "No one important, believe me. In fact, he's so non-important that I don't want to spend another moment thinking about him today."

"Him?" Angel asked with a wiggle of her eyebrow. "Not another moment, huh? You realize that implies you've spent quite a bit of time thinking about *him* already." Angel teased becoming very interested in this particular line of conversation. "So spill. Who is he?"

Liz shrugged not really wanting to venture too far into this subject realizing that if she did Angel really would figure out just how much of her time *had* been devoted to thinking about Max.

Looking at Angel's expectant expression, Liz let out a sigh knowing there was no means of escape. Well, fine. If she wanted to know, she was going to get the full scoop. "Who is he? Alright. I'll tell you who he is. He's the most irritating...insufferable...arrogant...conceited..."

"Handsome?" Angel threw in noting how flushed Liz's cheeks were becoming just talking about this stranger and guessing the reason.

...like Adonis Liz thought to herself but answered instead, "Like Beast in 'Beauty'."

Angel grinned. "Rich?"

"Filthy." Liz scrunched up her nose.

"Intelligent?"

Way beyond... She thought as she remembered how quickly his mind worked. She could literally see the wheels turning in his head at times. "Yeah, right. In his dreams." Was Liz's verbal response as she dismissed the thought with a wave of her hand.

"Perceptive?"

Like he's taking a page from my soul and reading it out loud. Was her mind's response.
Liz looked up at the ceiling and shook her head as she chuckled in disbelief. "He wishes."

"Sexy?" Angel asked with a mischievous look in her eyes, her voice lowering suggestively.

Liz's blush turned brighter as she leaned back into the couch and let out a sigh, her next thoughts escaping her mouth before she had a chance to reign them in. "You have no idea..."

The corners of Angel's mouth turned up into a knowing smile. "Sounds like you like him."

Liz looked sharply up at Angel. "And it sounds like you need a hearing aid! Haven't you been listening? I hate him!"

"Uh-huh. Sure." Angel said not believing a word Liz said.

Liz sat up straight, fire flashing out of her eyes. "Uh-huh. No. Don't even start. Look. I don't know what is so difficult for everyone to understand. I am dating Sean Graham. Is that clear? Or do I need to take a billboard out and announce it to the world before you people get the message?"

Take back by Liz's irritation, but not put off by it, Angel held back a chuckle at the look on Liz's face. Boy this stranger must have really gotten to her. Is it possible? Could it be? Nah. That would be too much of a coincidence. Angel held up her hands in surrender. "Ok. Ok. I get the point. You are dating Sean. And I'm to keep my nose out of your personal business."

A slow smile came to Liz's lips as her eyes began to sparkle with amusement. "Yeah, right. Like that'll ever happened."

Angel's eyes locked with Liz's and they both began to laugh. "I'm sorry, Angel. I've just had a really, really long day."

Not to mention confusing, I'll bet. Angel thought. "Well then it sounds like you need some quality hug time."

"Boy do I ever." Liz agreed with a grin. "So, where is she?"

"In her room."

"Good. I think I'll run up and spend some time with her." Liz got up and squeezed Angel's
shoulder as she was walking past her toward the door. "Thanks for understanding."

Angel nodded, a wickedly teasing grin coming to her face as Liz reached the door behind Angel. "Oh, Liz? Just one more thing."

Liz stopped and looked back at her. "What?"

"What's his name?"

"Who's?"

"This Beast you don't want to talk about."

Liz rolled her eyes and let out another sigh. "Max. His name is Maxwell Evans." Then before
Angel could form any more questions Liz slipped out the door.

Angel began rocking gently in her chair a satisfied scheming smile spreading over her face and filling her eyes with visions of the future.

to be continued....
posted on 21-Oct-2001 7:55:00 AM
~ chapter 6~

"Max, I can't apologize enough for the mistake on your lodgings." Max heard Barbara say on the other end of the line. "I'll see that your reservations are made at the New Haven..."

"No, Barbara. Don't." Max interrupted quickly. "I...uh...I don't mind my current lodgings. In fact, there's something rather…" His weary, absent gaze focused on the road ahead of him through the windshield of his rented Porsche, but his thoughts were hours in the past as he searched for the right word to describe the mysteries of the quaint, out of the way, romantic B&B. "…intriguing about it."

"Intriguing?"

"Yeah. Fascinating. Even…" Max's eyes closed briefly as a haunting voice danced through his head and waltzed its way into the exquisitely lithe form of an angel. "…mystical."

"Mystical." Barbara repeated confused more by the distracted, almost dreamy tone of Max's voice than by the word he'd chosen. There was a momentary pause where Barbara tried to make sense of his comments. Knowing from experience there was no use in trying to figure her enigmatic boss out, she gave up. "But, Max. It's a bed and breakfast. For honeymoon..."

"I'm aware of what it is, Barbara." Max's voice cut her off coldly as his eyes snapped with irritation. "Just...just leave it alone. Don't change anything."

His command met silence. If only he could have seen the raised eyebrow on the other end of the line... Ever since that Blake woman had shown up at his door, Max had been making rather odd statements and requests. First, canceling all of his appointments for an impromptu trip to a little Connecticut town. Then, searching all over creation for Kyle as if he'd committed some crime against humanity and needed to be strung up by his toenails. Now…it seemed this strange, unexplainable pattern was going to filter over into his lodgings as well.

"Barbara?" The silence had been too long and Max felt a twinge of guilt for his abruptness creep into his consciousness. Barbara was more than just a secretary to him. She'd been, at times, almost like an older sister. Then again, having seen him through the ins and outs of corporate battle for years, she was fairly used to his mood swings. Still…he had no right to snap at her. Must be the lack of sleep that he'd been getting was starting to grate on his nerves.

Max's gentled prompt snapped Barbara's attention back to the matter at hand. "Oh, uh…yes, sir. I was just wondering how long I should extend the reservation. I believe it was only for
2 nights."

Max's mind began to whirl. How long was he planning on staying here? Since coming to this sleepy little town he had already been challenged and shot down--twice--by the most alluring woman he'd ever met, found out she had a fake name and a secret past, run into an old enemy he'd rather forget, discovered an unknown eccentric painter, and was captivated by a mysterious singing angel. And he'd only been here 24 hours. What more could possibly be in store for him if he stayed longer?

Suddenly a word popped out of his mouth surprising even him. "Indefinitely."

"Indef..." Barbara cleared her throat. "I'm sorry, but did you just say indefinitely?"

Max felt the blood rush to his cheeks in a blush he was thankful Barbara couldn't see. "Yes, Barbara. That's what I said."

What was going on with him? Max had asked her to make some odd arrangements before but to set him up in a honeymoon cottage at an obscure bed and breakfast indefinitely had to be one of the strangest she'd heard yet. Uncertainty laced her words. "Al-right, then. I'm make the arrangements." She paused for a moment not sure if she should ask the next question or not. "Max? Are you...sure you're alright?"

Max sighed deeply not sure if he really knew the answer to that question. He'd gotten a total of three hours sleep the night before...maybe. He had tossed and turned all night as visions of
Kendall...no, Liz's face constantly flashed before him all the while that haunting melody he'd heard in the woods kept playing in his mind. At times he was so frustrated he wanted to yell. At others, he just simply lay in bed staring up at the ceiling, wondering if he should check himself in to the nearest insane asylum.

*Was* he alright? Probably not. Would he be? Yes. As soon as he saw Liz. Somewhere in all of his tossing and turning he'd realized that the message he'd sent her with the sweater might not have been the most appropriate thing.

Especially after finding out she really did have something to hide. Something that was obviously painful to remember. And possibly dangerous. The last thing he wanted to do was make her cry again. Just that thought made his stomach tie up in unexpected knots. He'd tried to figure out a way to get the package back before she'd see it--he'd even tried calling Rosie, but it was too late to do anything about it. Rosie said Liz had gotten back ten minutes before he called.

That's why seeing her today was so important. He had to look in her eyes and know with certainty that she was ok. That his 'gift' hadn't backfired and caused her more pain. Oh yeah, he'd be fine...once he knew she was.

Realizing he still hadn't answered Barbara, Max cleared his throat and replied, "Yes, Barbara, I'm fine. I just didn't sleep very well last night and I've got a lot on my mind. I'm sorry if I snapped earlier. Everything will be good if you can just see to the arrangements I asked for, ok?"

Barbara's relieved smile made it to her voice. "We'll do. Oh, and Max. Whatever you're worried about...well, you'll find a way to work it out. You always do."

Max smiled into the phone. "Thanks for your vote of confidence, Barbara. I'll talk to you later. Bye." Max let out a sigh as he clicked off his cell phone. "I hope you're right, Barbara. I really hope you're right."
~~~~~~~~~~
Max reached the Center about mid morning and checked in with V at the front desk. He leaned over the desk and gave her one of his most dazzling smiles hoping to produce a certain effect in the receiver. Finding his efforts well rewarded in the starry-eyed look V gave him, Max proceeded with confidence. "Hi, V. How are you today?"

V's dazed smile had been plastered to her face since the moment Max had walked in the door. "Me? Oh, I'm fine. Today's been a little hectic though. The phone's been ringing off the hook and we've had tons and tons of supplies delivered today and the kids..."

Max broadened his smile and sighed inwardly. God, I hope I don't have to go through this every time I want to see Kendall…Liz. Shaking away the confusion of just which name to think of 'her' by, Max quickly interrupted V's flow of thought to pour on the charm. "I'm sure it's been horrendous. Hey, I don't want to interrupt you from your work, but I did want to tell you how much I enjoyed lunch yesterday. It was very...enlightening."

"Oh. Well, I'm so glad to hear that." V sounded genuinely surprised as her eyes widened to add a few more stars as she gazed up at Max with an involuntary sigh. "You know I was just so sorry that I took so long that you were ready to leave by the time I got back. I had to stop and make a few phone calls as well. I just didn't realize how long it had been." V said rather uncomfortably as she looked away from Max momentarily.

V would rather die before admitting to Max that there had been a more embarrassing reason for her delay at lunch the day before. She…Venus Cosmorelli…was the ultimate clutz. Her face colored noticeably as she remembered Max's questioning her about the loud crash he'd heard from the general direction of the kitchen and restroom moments before she had emerged and how quickly she lied to cover her clumsiness. The last thing she wanted was for some gorgeous, classy man like Max to know the hand she'd played in the early demise of a set of Jake's dinner plates. Not to mention the ruination of Terry and Cindy's uniforms. With the amount of dry cleaning she was now indebted to pay, it was a very good thing that Max picked up the tab on yesterday's meal after all.

Unaware and unconcerned with V's sudden discomfort, Max nodded understandingly. All he could remember was asking V about a loud noise he'd heard right before she returned in order to give him enough time to make up an excuse so he could duck out of there as fast as he could. He'd run out of there so fast, in fact, that the three bowls of chili at Rosie's ended up being his real lunch. His dazzling smile never wavered. "I completely understand. A busy, important woman like yourself has many priorities to take care of."

V blushed and ventured a guess as to why he was there. Incorrectly ventured. "So, would you like for me to make it up to you? It's almost lunchtime now. We could go..."

Max straightened himself immediately and began quickly shaking his head. God, please no. Not another lunch with Chatter-box. The thought flashed instantaneously through his mind before he plunged in head-first without stopping to rein in his reaction. "Oh, no. No, that's not necessary."

He saw the disappointment cloud her face. Realizing how rude that must have sounded and knowing how he couldn't afford to lose an ally in this apparent war with Liz, Max softened as he leaned back over the desk and gave her his most apologetic, disappointed look. "I...I mean, I'd love to, but I'm actually here on business. I was really hoping to see if Kendall could fit me into her schedule today for a tour. You know we didn't get a chance to do one yesterday. I realize that I didn't have an appointment, but I thought as…uh…" Think, Max. Think. A little white lie never hurt anybody… His brain snapped back into player mode providing him just the words he needed. "…talented…as you are at making things happen you just might be able to squeeze me into her schedule somehow."

V unconsciously batted her eyelashes and gushed. "Oh, really? You...you think I'm talented? You know...my aunt always told me I had the Cosmorelli talent for finding things. I remember one time..."

Max reached over and covered her hand with his, hoping his touch would still her tongue from rambling any further as he flashed her his most mesmerizing smile. "Uh, you know, V, I'm sure your aunt was right. In fact, I'll bet you could prove that talent right now and find me an appointment with Kendall. Do you think you could at least try?" His head tilted to the side as he gave her that infamous 'puppy dog' look as his lips came out in a slightly pleading pout. "For me?"

V let out a long, loud sigh as she looked from his eyes down at Max's hand holding hers. "I'll...I'll do my best..." Her voice was dreamy as she reluctantly removed her hand from his and pulled out the schedule book. She ran her finger down the page unaware that Max was looking on with darkening eyes, snapping victoriously, and a cocky grin that screamed he still had 'it'--that enigmatic something that always got him what he wanted. "Well, let's see... She's in with the reading group right now. That should be over in about 10 minutes. Why don't I take you to her and show you a few things along the way?"

Realizing that he really had no other choice, Max plastered a smile to his face and agreed with as much enthusiasm as he could muster.
~~~~~~~
Max managed to make it through the next five minutes by paying more attention to the childish drawings on the walls and nodding appropriately at V's incessant chatter beside him. He barely heard a word of what she said, but somehow managed to flash her a smile at all the right pauses that caused her eyes to glow. He should be ashamed, but somehow he wasn't. Everything was fair when it came to war. Even Kend…Liz…had told him that. It wasn't until they reached a window looking into a room full of children that Max's attention really began to take focus.

There she was. Liz was sitting in the middle of the floor with children all around her. They sat spell-bound as she was reading them a story, her facial expressions and bodily movements matching whatever emotion the characters were supposed to be feeling. His gaze swept over the tiny upturned faces as they stared at Liz, wide-eyed and enraptured. He smiled to himself. He couldn't blame them. Max couldn't even hear the words of their story and he was already completely captivated.

As if feeling someone's eyes on her, Liz suddenly glanced up at the window to see Max watching her intently, his hands jammed into his pants pockets casually and a faint smile on his face. She felt a heated flush rise over her cheeks and tried to ignore his presence by quickly turning her attention back to the children to finish her story. Not surprisingly, it was the story of Little Red Riding Hood.

Good. The Big, Bad Wolf did show up today. Liz had a feeling he would. Not that she *wanted* to see his gorgeous smile that made her knees weak or those amber eyes that spoke volumes. Or that hard body and smooth skin that her fingers just ached to touch and her body wanted to melt against… Oh, no. Her reasons hadn't been anything like that. No, she just didn't want all of that wasted sleep she'd had last night to be for nothing.

Last night when she'd arrived home after visiting Angel, she'd found a package lying on her doorstep. Curious, she'd taken it inside and opened it almost as soon as she stepped into the doorway. Her curiosity as well as her confusion grew by leaps and bounds when the large, cranberry-colored, wool sweater tumbled out of the box. It wasn't until she saw the note that she understood it's meaning. "Now who's hiding in sheep's clothing? Forever, your Adonis."

Her first reaction had been sudden paranoia. Was he really who he said he was? Had he found out something about her past? Worse yet, had the infamous 'he' found her? Was Max an associate of 'his' sent to report on her? As soon as that thought came to her mind, she dismissed it immediately. No, 'his' associates were not hard to miss. Max had nothing to do with that organization. Of that one thing, she was sure.

Her initial fear being quelled she looked back at the note again. Their earlier conversation about wolves came back to her as the meaning of the message became clear. The corners of her mouth began to twitch in amusement despite herself. He's cute. Very cute. And clever. She let out a dreamy sigh and in the next moment hated herself for it.

So much so that she'd found it impossible to sleep. All night she tossed and turned wondering how she could pay him back. What she could do to get the point across to him that he could be as cute and adorable, funny and charming, sexy and delectable as he wanted, she still wasn't going to fall for his games. Somewhere around 4:00 this morning the way became clear to her...

When Liz closed the book at the end of the story, a collective groan sounded throughout the room. She laughed as she started to get up only to have the children all scramble to give her hugs. Max watched in amazement as she took the time to hug each child and say something to them that would cause beautiful little smiles to break out over their faces.

There was one lone child who still sat on the floor at the back of what had been the semi-circle of eager listeners, watching the scene unfold before her, a look of longing and wariness mixed in her eyes as she watched Liz's outpouring of love for the other children. As the children started to break away from Liz, she glanced over and noticed the sad little face whose eyes were now averted from the group.

Liz sat back down and eyed the child for a moment before calling her name to get her attention. The girl slowly raised her large gray eyes to Liz's patiently waiting face to receive a beautiful smile and an invitation to sit beside her as Liz tilted her head to the side and patted the floor next to her. The youngster hesitated for a moment as indecision hung in her eyes. Her desire for love was too strong, however, and finally won out over her fear as she went to sit next to Liz receiving a warm hug for her courage.

A sudden desire swept over Max. It was the desire to hear what Liz would say to one whose eyes reflected the exact same emotions he's seen in Liz's only yesterday. Fear. Uncertainty. Longing. Maybe through her own words he'd find the key to breaking those barriers she'd forcefully put up between herself and the rest of the world. At least, the adult male portion of the world.

Moving closer to the window as if the wall between them would magically disappear, a subconscious hope to hear the exchange that he knew was about to take place flowed through Max. Not surprisingly, Max couldn't make out what Liz said to the little waif, but whatever it was it literally transformed her appearance. Gone was the sadness. Gone was the suspicion and fear. Only hope and delight claimed a place in her eyes now.

Max couldn't help but wonder how Liz would look when mistrust and sadness were no longer part of the language her eyes spoke every time he looked into them. A sudden yearning to find out gripped his heart in a way he knew would never let go until he found out for himself. He was so wrapped up in trying to make sense of the feelings that were suddenly flowing through him at watching Liz's interaction that before he knew it, Liz herself had left the children behind to come stand in front of him.

Looking up into his amber eyes, Liz felt that familiar lack of air attack her lungs when her breath caught in her throat. She was once again overwhelmed by the depth of beauty that clashed with her own dark pools of emotion. If the eyes were the windows to the soul, he certainly had eyes worth looking into to. If they were the ocean, she wanted to drown. Slowly and tragically. A flash of delight cracked her heart open briefly when Max's eyed deepened instinctively to a deep, warm chocolate as they locked with hers. An ambrosial shiver ran through her when she saw a new amber hue spark with desire. Then a chill of mistrust sealed her heart up again when his gaze turned almost black…and hungry. Watch yourself, Liz. He will eat you alive if you let him.

Liz crossed her arms in front of her as her dark eyes began to blaze with a fire that was meant to scorch its target to a crisp. Instead, it only managed to make Max's blood boil with need. His temperature spiked instantly and he had to bunch his hands into fists deep inside his pockets to keep himself from reaching out and crushing her to him. God, she's delectable. With her creamy skin and berry-colored lips, Max felt his mouth water with an insatiable craving. The faint rose blush on her cheeks reminded him of a wine he tasted once in the South of France. Delicate. Silky. Yet…poignant. And completely intoxicating.
Max and Liz stood staring at each other a moment, their eyes speaking in ways that melted the floor around their feet. Intense. Hot. Greedy. Max took a shallow breath and Liz could swear she felt the ragged air burning in her own lungs. It rattled her. Rippled through her blood and thundered against her chest. Max felt a simultaneous quaking inside. Deep in his heart. Dropping to the pit of his stomach. Shaking loose the boulders of walls that had been in place for years. It jarred him to his very core.

Unnerved as they both were, neither of them wanted this moment to end. For their own sanity, both were relieved when it did.

V's voice finally broke through this fierce silence as she piped up explaining the reason for Max's presence there. "Kendall, Max dropped by to see if you could give him the tour you couldn't yesterday." Misinterpreting the heated look in Liz's eyes she offered a solution to head off the storm she thought she saw brewing. "You know, if you're busy right now, I could always take Max on the tour..."

Liz's forced aloofness turned instantly to amusement as she bit back a smile seeing the panic in Max's eyes when he shot a look from V back to Liz at V's suggestion. He tried valiantly to mask it with a smile that only reached his lips, but Liz wasn't fooled. Why not? She'd save him the pain of spending the next half hour alone with V. Besides there were some things she wanted to make clear to Mr. Maxwell Evans. Especially after that staring contest they'd just had.

"Actually, V, I believe I have time right now. I'd be more than happy to take Mr. Evans on the tour myself. You know, the kids need to be taken back to their rooms right now. If you could go ahead and do that for me, I'll show Mr...uh, Max…around." She smiled dismissively to V before turning back to Max. Hey, if V could call him by his first name, so could she.

V turned with a disappointed sigh after saying her good-byes and left Max and Liz standing in the hall alone. Silence hung between them as they both mentally geared up for battle. His curiosity at an all-time high, Max chose his first weapon of sincere interest, well. With a steady gaze into her eyes, Max posed a quiet question. "So, what did you say to her?"

Liz's nose scrunched up in confusion. "Who?"

"The little girl you had to call to you. The one whose life you just changed." He answered admiration ringing in his voice as he nodded toward the childrens' story room.

Liz's face colored a bit as she realized how intently he must have been paying attention to the scene inside the room to have picked up on the changes that passed over the little girl's face. Liz shrugged as if to throw off the compliment of his sudden interest. "I gave her the only thing I could offer her...my love and attention."

"Somehow I get the feeling that's more than enough to mend even the most damaged of hearts." Max responded softly as the honesty in his voice matched the admiration and respect she saw dawning in his eyes.

A trickle of warmth flooded the area around Liz's heart as his genuine words reached her ears. A warmth she couldn't, no...she wouldn't allow herself to feel. Liz cleared her throat before leveling an indifferent, untouched gaze at him replacing those blocks he'd managed to knock down in that wall she so desperately needed to keep between them. "So, Max…what is it you're here for again?"

Max eyed her carefully, trying to determine the amount of damage his 'gift' might have caused. It didn't look like much since she was actually wearing the sweater he'd dropped off for her and there was at least more indignation and wariness in her eyes than pain. With her defenses up again, it looked like he was clearly on ground he could handle.

The only problem was…it had been one of his sweaters...

Ignoring her earlier question he launched into a topic of conversation he hoped would answer one of his. "Nice sweater. Although I have to say it is a little big on you." Max said as he touched the arm sleeve and watched it fall down well over Liz's hand. The sweater was so big it engulfed her petite body, but somehow Max liked the look. Maybe because it was beginning to fall a little off her shoulders revealing that smooth, creamy skin he longed to touch. Or maybe it was the fact she was wearing something that had once belonged to him...

Liz pushed the sleeve back up and straightened the sweater with a warning look when she saw the way his hungry gaze swept over her in admiration. She forced calmness into her voice so it didn't shake the way her insides suddenly seemed to do. "Yes, well, the person who gave it to me was more interested in making a point than he was in making a friendly gesture. So, size was of no importance to him."

"Really?" His eyebrows furrowed in mock confusion and his voice lowered suggestively. "I was under the impression size always mattered."

"Are you now?" Liz's eyes raked over Max's body from head to toe in an equally suggestive manner, her eyes lingering just below his belt a little longer than necessary but long enough to make her next jab more effective. "Well, I guess that would explain your drive to continually add to your corporate wealth." Her eyes flicked back to his as a coy smile haunted her lips. "You do know what they say about men and compensation, don't you? Making up in one area for their lack in another, and all that."

Max flashed her an equally disarming smile. "Believe me, I have nothing to compensate for. In fact…" Removing his hands from his pockets, Max held them out in a gesture of open surrender though his eyes flashed with an irresistible dare. "…I'm more than willing to show you all of my assets so you can decide for yourself."

Taking up the dangerous challenge despite the red warning flags in the back of her mind, Liz's grin was devilish and her eyes snapped with delighted mischief as she began to circle Max as if inspecting him. Reaching his shoulder, Liz stood on tiptoe and placed a gentle hand on his shoulder as she leaned into him, her breath warm against his ear. "And here I thought you had to have a heart before you could show it to anyone."

"Ouch." Max feigned a stab to his heart with his hands and was rewarded with a stiffled giggle from behind him as Liz continued her 'inspection'. "Now, would that have hurt so much if I didn't have a heart?" His question was greeted with silence. Well, almost silence. Max heard Liz's sharp intake of breath and tried his best to hold back a smug smile. It didn't work. Even clothed in his tailored suit, he could literally feel every place that her eyes were burning in to him. It felt so good. Hot. Smoldering. He didn't have to concentrate real hard to almost feel her hands blazing the paths her eyes had followed. "So, is there anything specific you'd like to see?"

Oh, God. I'm in trouble. Liz didn't want to face him. With the way her skin was tingling and an almost unbearable heat was bubbling deep inside her, she knew she wouldn't be able to hide his affect on her. She simply couldn't let him know that every accentuated curve and line of his broad shoulders, well-toned arms, narrow waist and tight behind were now indelibly etched into her memory. The suit fit him perfectly. Like a second layer of skin. Showing off 'assets' on Max that would go completely unnoticed on any other man. Now that she had dimensions and form to go by those dreams of hers at night were going to be steamier…definitely more detailed. Liz shut her eyes and sucked in her breath at an image of taut muscles and hard flesh shining in the moonlight. Moving with the sleek gracefulness of a panther as it claimed it prey…

"You know, I could always unzip my portfolio if you wanted to see…" A hint of amusement trickled through his words as he allowed the thought to go unfinished, guessing it wouldn't take her long to pick up on his train of thought. He wasn't wrong.

Max's teasing suggestion snapped Liz back to reality. "Um…uh…no! I…I…uh…" Liz cleared her throat and forced herself to breathe. Cloaking herself immediately in indifference, Liz stepped from around his side to stand in front of him and pinned him with a caustic look as full control wrapped around her. "As tempting as that might sound, it won't be necessary. See, the bottom line isn't what you have but what you do with what you have. Quality over quantity every time."

"Oh, well. If you want quality, I'd say that sweater is top of the line." Max commented, his eyes twinkling as took in her flushed face and shallow breathing. Max, my boy, can you say A-DOR-A-BLE? Cuz that's exactly what this woman is. Trying not to let you know she's just as hot for you as you are for her. God, Liz-whatever-your-name-is, where have you been all of my life?

"Oh, it is. Amazing material. Great style. Beautiful color. One of a kind, I’m assuming." Liz shrugged her slender shoulders. "But then again, I don't think quality was his concern either."

"Ah. I see." Max pursed his lips to keep back a chuckle. "So, then you're wearing it to...."

"Make a point as well." Liz finished for him. God, he looked so good today. As if he didn't look good every day she'd seen him. He really does look like Adonis. Liz held back a sigh. Wisps of hair were falling on his forehead and Liz had the sudden urge to reach up and push them back, just to see what running her fingers through that thick dark hair would feel like.

"Really. Huh..." Max's brows furrowed in concentration. "So, what exactly would that point be?" He flashed her a smile. "If you don't mind me asking, of course."

"Oh, of course not." Liz said with mock politeness pulling her thoughts back to the conversation as if they were, in fact, speaking of a third party instead of each other. "The point is that no matter what this person wears on the outside it still doesn't change who he is on the inside. He can give up as many wool sweaters as he wants and don expensive Armani suits to his little heart's content...it still doesn't change the person I know him to be."

Max smiled as if a light bulb had just been turned on over his head. "Oh, I get it. You thought this, uh…let me guess. You still think he's a wolf, right?"

"The biggest and the baddest." Liz said without hesitation as she crossed her arms in front of her.

Max nodded absently as he continued as if not having heard her. "Uh-huh. Right. So, this wolf...you think the point he was trying to make was that because he gave you an article of clothing, he's no longer the big bad wolf that Little Red Riding Hood has to keep an eye out for?"

Liz nodded her head, her eyes never leaving his. "Pretty much. Only I'm not as naïve as Little Red Riding Hood."

"He'd be a fool to think you are." Max remarked back as his eyes locked with hers. The connection between them was instantaneous as a battle of wills and desire began again. Verbally sparring with her only served to add to the mounting tension between them. His voice lowered meaningfully. "Perhaps you missed his point."

"What other point could he have wanted to make?" Liz tried to not pay attention to how incredibly drawn to him she was, but was failing miserably. Why was it every time she looked into his eyes she felt as if she'd just been hit by a lightening bolt? She had to get a grip. She had to stop these feelings rushing through her. He was still danger and should be treated as such.

Max shrugged slightly trying to pretend he didn't notice her inner battle reflected in her expression. Easily playing up to the fact she was struggling. "Oh, I don't know. That although we all have things to hide, maybe you've misjudged him. Maybe he wants to be an open book. If you give him the chance. In fact…" Max leaned forward, his voice a bare whisper, his eyes intently gazing into hers capturing her undivided attention and stealing the breathing from her lungs. "…maybe it's possible that you've already guessed more about him then half the women he's dated in the past year know." He tilted his head to the side in thought. "No. Make that in his whole lifetime. And that was something he had never expected. Something he's not all too familiar with. Or something he even likes."

Liz swallowed hard and tried to control her insides from melting with each word he spoke, not to mention the way he was looking at her. When she spoke her voice was strained and not nearly as strong as she wished it would be and she felt a hitch in her chest as she tried to get some air back to her quickly deflating body. The question passed her parched lips in a whisper. "If he doesn't like it, why is he still hanging around?"

Max took a step toward her needing to be close enough to smell the vanilla scent he knew would be drifting from her hair. He closed his eyes briefly when he got his desire as a light sigh escaped him. Opening his eyes and looking down into hers, Max whispered a truth he hadn't wanted to admit even to himself. "Because for some reason…he just can't stay away."

Liz gulped. As she looked up from under her dark eyelashes into those devastating eyes, she watched with awe as they began to darken with flames of desire. Reason began to melt away. Ok, Lizzie. We have lips. Only inches away. What would it hurt? Just one kiss. Just one…long, luscious duel of tangled, hot, plunging… Then reason came storming back. You should be ashamed of yourself! You're standing in the hall of a childrens' shelter! Raging hormones have no place here! A soft dreamy voice joined the chorus. But those lips. And those multi-hued eyes with those lush, long eyelashes that seemed to brush against my soul and take a piece of me with each slow blink…

If ever a breath had been held, it belonged to Max Evans. He watched with increasing awe to the shadows and lights playing havoc with the emotions in the depth of Liz's eyes. Desire shot like a falling star through midnight skies chased by a cloud of reproof that turned into a haze of longing. The thundering of his heart drummed out any voices of doubt or fear that tried to whisper their way into his logical mind. He unconsciously leaned forward, inching his way closer to her slightly parted lips and prayed with everything in him that this would be the moment he'd been thinking of since the second he laid eyes on her.

His prayers went unanswered.

"Kendall?" A small voice called out to Liz as she stood by the door to the girl's bedroom and flicked off the lights, the light from the hallway illuminating her sweet face poking out from her ruffle-covered bed.

"Yes, sweetie?"

"Thanks for keepin' me safe. I love you."

"I love you too, precious…"


As if snapping herself out of a spell, Liz blinked when she heard that sweet voice echo in her mind and quickly took a step back. She had a definite moment of confusion where she tried to figure out how Max had managed to get so close to her and why in the world she had let him, but finally her resolve was firmly back in place. Her eyes instantly took on a challenging look as she picked up their conversation as if nothing had almost happened between them. "Must be all that green he's seeing."

Max shook his head slightly as he let out a resigned sigh and stuffed his hands back in his pockets. Too much, too soon. He should have known better with her. But a foundation had been laid. Now it was time to build on it. Undaunted, he flashed her slow smiled, his eyes looking meaningfully into hers. "No. Brown's the color for the day. Soft, velvety, chocolate...just like your eyes."

It was a line. Delivered with perfect finesse and a heap of sincerity, but a line none-the-less. Good. The game was back on. Flirtatious. Distant. Manageable. Liz smiled slyly as her voice softened. "Maybe. But even brown eyes can't compete with the crisp green color of money. The kind and amount that comes as a result of a successful raid."

"This particular raider has never lost sleep over a business deal." Max stated with a look that let her know he had also lost sleep last night and it had been over her. Another point to Liz. At least she hadn't been the only one. And she hadn't been the one to admit it first.

"Couldn't sleep, huh?" She asked with a slight grin. "Must be all of that guilt you're feeling."

Max's eyebrow raised. Guilt? No, he hadn't felt guilty. Concerned…but not guilty. He eyed her confident expression. Alright. So, maybe guilt did play a part in his nocturnal musings...but he'd be damned before he let her know that. He chuckled disarmingly. "Guilt? Now what would I need to feel guilty about?" Max asked with an air of disbelief.

Liz shrugged her slim shoulders causing the sweater to slide slowly to the side again as she answered. "Oh, I don't know. Maybe the secrets you're trying so hard to pretend that you aren't hiding."

Max tilted his head to the side as he eyed her. Should he? Yeah, she seemed ready to take it. A cunning grin slowly taking control of his perfect lips causing Liz's heart to leap in her chest. He was so irresistibly sexy when he looked at her like that. "Oh, but don't you know we all have secrets, Kendall?" Mimicking her earlier move, Max dipped his head and began to circle Liz adding a layer of temptation to the seductive inspection. His fingers. Grazing lightly up her arm. "Things that we try to hide?" His hand, resting gently against her shoulder as he, too, leaned forward nuzzling her hair before whispering in her ear. "Even from ourselves."

Liz squeezed her eyes shut and forced herself to focus on taking breaths. Any kind of breaths. Big. Little. Panting. Slow. As long as that thing--God, what was it called?--air. That's what it was. Air. She needed air. Her fingernails bit into the palms of her hands and she swallowed repeatedly before croaking out what she knew was a rather dangerous question. "L-like…what?"

She could feel him smile against her hair as the weight of his hand burned right through the sweater and into her skin. He'd been waiting for an opening. And she just handed it to him. Max moved tauntingly around Liz, his warmth engulfing her from behind as he placed his other hand on her shoulder before caressing down her arms then back up, ever so lightly. Like a feather spreading whispers of fire through her body. "Oh, like the way the people we're dating make us feel." He dipped his head to whisper in her other ear. "Or...not feel, in your case." His eyes began to sparkle when he saw a shiver run through her a split second before irritation square her shoulders.

He lowered his voice suggestively as he rounded her slowly, trailing his fingers through her hair and across her back. His fingers never left her body as Max inched them upward to the exposed skin of her neck, his dark eyes trained on hers, pulling her further and further into a world where only the two of them existed. "Or how complete strangers can have an instant, electrifying connection unlike anything they ever known before. Like lightening from the sky, it hits and sends..." Max allowed his gaze to follow the path his hand took as he reached up and softly ran his fingers down the side of her neck to the shoulder where his sweater had now fallen completely off exposing her softly scented skin to his view.

His eyes flicked back to her face as he heard her sharp intake of breath and felt a shudder rush through her body with his touch. His voice echoed the low rumble of thunder that was pounding away in her heart. Raspy. Electric. Liz could feel every single word he spoke echoing through her entire body. "...shock waves through you that you're powerless to control. And no matter how unnerving it can be, you just…" Max's gaze dropped to Liz's lips and his head instinctively dipped lower. "…can't…" He leaned into Liz's hands that that instinctively raised to rest against his chest as Liz's lips parted to receive him and her eyes fluttered closed. "…stop yourself…" Nose nuzzled nose. Breath mingled with breath. Satin lips were only a whisper away. "…from coming back for more."

Max and Liz instantly jumped apart. Stunned back to reality by a voice.

"Hey, you two! You haven't moved from where I left you!" Oblivious to the hastily exchanged guilty looks, Liz's flushed cheeks and Max's heavily rising chest, V bounced up with a pretty, blonde woman tagging along behind. She looked as if she were having problems with a load of toys spilling from her arms onto the floor. "Maria dropped by to see you, so I thought I'd hook you two up and see if Max needed to be shown anything else."

Liz turned to the woman who was now bent down to pick up yet another stray stuffed animal trying desperately to hold onto the rest of the items in her arms. Anxious to put distance between Max and herself, Liz nervously forced a laugh as she rushed to help the woman before something else fell from her grip. "Here, Maria, let me help you with that." Liz grabbed some of the items on top of the huge pile in her arms just before Max's arms reached to take the rest from Maria.

Finally having everything deposited on a nearby chair, Maria let out a loud sigh. "Wow! I never thought going through Michelle's things would be so hard! The only way I got half of this here was because she's at home taking a nap."

"You mean to tell us you've stolen these from that precious little girl of yours?" Back turned to Max, Liz focused all of her energy on Maria and asking the teasing question with a hint of mischief in her eyes.

Maria put her hands on her hips. "You better watch it, chica! I was donating these to the Center, but if you're not careful I'll just pack 'em back up and take 'em on home."

"Don't you dare!" Liz said with a chuckle.

Maria' eyes moved to settle on the well-built figure standing outside the scene looking on with amused interest. "Hi, I'm Maria DeLuca Guerin." She stuck out her hand as she introduced herself. "Thanks for your help. I wasn't sure I was going to make it one more step without losing everything."

Max shook her hand with a smile. "Anytime I can help such a beautiful lady, it's always my pleasure."

"Oh, so we've got a smooth talker here, huh?" Maria asked as she glanced at Liz and saw Liz roll her eyes, but purposely avoided looking directly at Max. "Good. It'll give Michael some competition." She turned back to Max to explain. "Michael is my husband."

"I see." Max said with a grin. He too was trying to avoid eye contact with Liz. Not that he minded what had almost happened between them, but he was pretty certain she was going to have a bit of trouble explaining it to herself, let alone her way out of it when the subject did come back up. And he was definitely going to make sure the subject was revisited…very soon.

But not now. Now, was the time to gather information. "That wouldn't be Michael Guerin, CEO of EMG now would it?"

Maria' eyes glowed with pride. "Yes it would. And you would be...?"

"Max. Max Eva..."

Maria' eyes widened in surprise as she recognized his name immediately. "Holy Toledo! Wait till Michael gets a load of this! You're Max Evans, aren't you? I thought you looked familiar. I've heard so much about you!"

Max started chuckling at her reaction as he put his hands in his pockets and grinned broadly. "Guilty as charged. You're as beautiful and as sharp as I've heard. It's nice to finally meet Michael's lovely wife. Although, I have to say, I'm surprised you've heard nice things about me considering your husband is one of my most challenging business rivals."

"Oh, I'm sorry. Did I give you the impression what I've heard is good?" Maria looked genuinely apologetic. "Hate to disappoint you, but what I've heard has mainly been from my grandpop-in-law and he says you're a scoundrel and a thief and some other choice names I'd rather not say. Michael tends to agree with him."

Liz stifled a laugh at the disappointed look on Max's face. He looked like a little boy who had just been taunted with a bag full of candy then had it suddenly taken away.

Maria saw the look too and quickly added, "Don't worry. I make up my own mind and I tend to disagree most of the time, though...at least with Eddie--that's what I call my grand-pop-in-law. In fact, I just got done reading 'Fortune's' latest and they're right...you really are the cat's meow."

"The cat's meow?" Liz asked with a giggle.

Maria dismissed Liz's teasing with a wave of her hand before turning back to Max. "Oh, you know what I mean...you're pretty hot stuff according to them. In fact, I think the words they used were 'devastatingly handsome' and 'charmingly clever'."

Max shot Liz a look that said, 'Told you so', that made her roll her eyes, before turning back to Maria with a renewed smile. "Well, I'll definitely take that as a compliment, especially from someone so beautiful and charming herself. And I certainly hope I get a chance to expand your good opinion of me in the future."

"So, what are ya doing here anyway?" Maria asked.

Liz jumped in before Max got a chance to open his mouth. "Watch out, Maria. He's out to steal EMG out from underneath Michael and Sean...but he'd never admit that to you, of course. He's doing his best to prove he isn't the typical wolf in sheep's clothing." Her eyes began to sparkle in jest as she shot a look back at Max while his eyes flashed with amusement.

Max attempted to clarify Liz's statement when he saw the confused look on Maria' face. "Don't listen to her. She thinks I'm trying to pull the wool over her eyes."

Liz rolled her eyes again and groaned trying hard to not laugh at his reference to the wool sweater and her reason for wearing it. "Oh, God. That was so pitiful."

Max just shrugged and grinned back at her in response. "Not as pitiful as yours."

Maria looked back and forth between Max and Liz. She felt like she'd missed something somehow. Like she'd stepped into the middle of a private joke that wasn't quite finished. One thing she didn't miss and certainly didn't need explaining were the looks they'd been sending each other. The way Kendall's cheeks were flushed. The way Max's eyes kept drifting to Kendall's exposed neck and shoulder and brightening a notch every time they did. She also saw an aura about Kendall that she'd never seen before. This side of Kendall was playful, almost flirty, toward Max. And he certainly didn't seem to mind. Hmm, wonder what exactly is up with these two?

Realizing that Max still hadn't explained what he was doing there and so desperately wanting to be the one to take Max on that tour, V jumped in. "Max is really here to take a tour of the Center. He might be able to offer us some assistance in the future."

"Oh, well, I certainly don't want to barge in on your tour, then. I just came to drop these off and see if Kendall here wanted to go to lunch. Apparently, that won't be possible."

Seeing the confident look in Max's eyes that Maria' last statement was true, and knowing there was simply no way in hell she was going to be able to spend another minute alone with him an not finish that kiss they'd started, Liz decided to turn the tables on him a little. "Actually, I'd love to go to lunch with you. I'm sure that V wouldn't mind giving Max the tour I had intended."

If looks could kill Liz would have been buried 6 feet under by the time those words were out of her mouth. The sudden look of panic and annoyance in Max's eyes made Liz want to jump up and down and do a victory dance. Somehow she managed to keep both feet on the ground.

"Oh, no. I wouldn't mind giving Max a tour at all." V piped up as she moved to stand next to Max and looked adoringly up into his face.

"Great!" Maria said unaware of the sudden displeasure in Max's face that he tried to mask instantly.

"We can eat and talk a little MLK while we’re at it."

"That sounds great to me too." Liz commented with a grin while catching Max's reaction out of the corner of her eye. For a moment he looked completely caught off guard. Then annoyed. Then in the next, she could see the wheels turning in his head as he tried to figure out a way to get out of this.

Wait. What is happening here? She can't really be sending me on the tour with V. She really couldn't do this to me again. Could…she? One look in her mischief-filled eyes told him she could...and she was. He had to get out of this fast. "You know, I'm sure V's busy. I could always wait..." Max began.

"Nonsense." V stopped him. "I'm as free as a bird right now. Come on. I'll show you the kids wing first." V grabbed his arm and started to drag him away before he got a chance to protest any further. "See ya later, guys."

Max cast one last look back over his shoulder at Liz and scowled at her when she gleefully waved good-bye to him. "Have fun!" She called out to him with a wink.

Maria glanced at Kendall just as V and Max turned the corner. A devilish grin was spread over her face and she punched the air as she mouthed a victorious 'yes!'. She looked positively pleased with herself.

"Alright, Chica. What exactly are you up to?" Maria wasn’t sure she'd ever seen Kendall this tickled before. What exactly was going on between her and Max? Whatever it was it was making her positively glow.

"What? Me? Oh nothing." Liz tried to sound innocent, but she just couldn't keep the triumph out of her voice or the delight out of her eyes.

"Uh-huh. Right. You realize I don't believe you." Maria commented as she picked up her purse. Liz just shrugged and smiled mutely.

"Alright, girlfriend. Spill it. What exactly is going on between you and Mr. Gorgeous? I swear to you, Kendall, if you don't tell me now, I'll hound it outta you at lunch." Maria commented as they began walking down the hall.

Liz let out a sigh as she glanced at Maria. "Alright. Let's just say that 'Mr. Gorgeous' and I have been having a little battle of wills since he showed up in town yesterday. I'll hand it to him..." Max's touch still burned against her skin and she could still feel his warm breath on her lips as her mind flashed to the near kiss. It took all her willpower to keep her knees from going slack under her. "…he's…uh…won a few points." Liz's grin broadened into a satisfactory smile. "But today...today the victory was mine."
~~~~~~
Liz and Maria were laughing as they walked back into the Center after lunch. Over lunch, Liz had told Maria the basic story of Max's visit to New Haven leaving out certain parts, of course. Like how incredibly attracted to Max she was. And how whenever they were in the room together she just wanted to forget everything--Sean, the center, everything--and just throw herself into his arms to see if kissing him would be as heavenly as she's dreamed. How she'd been milliseconds from doing just that. Or how he made her melt inside with just one look and how she hadn't felt anything like this in a very, very long time.

She had just finished giving the details of the sweater and tour incidents and Maria had burst out laughing when she remembered the look on his face as he'd been dragged away by V. Maria had no choice but to agree that it did indeed look like Kendall had won the day. V looked up from her perch at the front desk and smiled. "Hi, did you have a good lunch?"

"Yes, we did. And how was your tour?" Liz asked curiously wondering just how long it took before Max was able to extract himself from the tour and what excuse he gave.

"Oh, it was great! Max was very interested and impressed with the whole organization. In fact, he was so impressed..." V paused and sighed deeply. "Kendall, you're never going to believe this! I feel as if all of my dreams may have come true!"

Maria started to chuckle at V's exuberance while Liz began to get a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach. "Ok, V. Spit it out. He was so impressed that...?" Liz prompted her.

V took a deep breath and began to wring her hands in excitement before announcing, "He's going to volunteer."

Liz's mouth dropped open as Maria started to laugh at the expression of disbelief on her face as well as at Max's boldness. Well, if he wanted to get her back for the little tour stunt, he definitely picked the right way to do it. "He's...he's going...to what??" She asked incredulously not sure she'd heard V right.

V bobbed her head up and down. "That's right! He's going to be here a couple of hours every
day. Monday through Friday. Isn't that great?"

Liz started to shake her head. "No. No. No, he can't do that. He can't volunteer here. I...I have to talk to Claire." She started to walk toward the hallway.

"But, Kendall, there's no need. Max already spoke to her. She's in complete agreement with his schedule. In fact, she thought it was a wonderful idea." V gushed suddenly before grabbing the phone that had begun to ring.

Liz's mouth hung open again as her gaze shifted to Maria's sparkling eyes full of amusement. "I can't believe this. He's going to be here...every...day." She sank down into the nearest chair stunned and a bit unnerved.

Maria came and sat next to her a huge grin dimpling her cheeks. "Well, chica, it looks like you'd better not clear out a place for that victory trophy just yet." She tried to hold back the laughter from her voice, but didn’t quite succeed. This was getting too good for words.

Just when Maria thought it couldn't get any better, V came up to Liz and announced, "Oh and I almost forgot. He left this note for you." V handed Liz a sealed envelope then ran to answer another phone.

Maria watched Liz's reaction with curiosity as she snatched the envelope from V and quickly ripped it open. She yanked out the note and let the envelope fall to the floor. Boy, she was worse than Michelle at Christmas ripping open her presents.

Liz skimmed the note quickly then closed her eyes and let out a groan. "What? What'd he say?" Maria asked.

Liz silently handed the note to her, then cringed when she heard Maria's giggle.

"It's not funny." Liz snapped.

Maria giggled again. "Aw, come on, Kendall. Even you have to admit this is pretty cute." She raised the note in front of her and read out loud...

"Little Red Riding Hood, Looks like the wolf made it to Grandma's house after all. See you tomorrow. Your Adonis. P.S. I believe the score is now one, one."

Hearing Maria' insuppressible chuckle, Liz snatched the note out of her hands and stood up, determination and fire flashing in her dark eyes. "Yeah, go ahead. Laugh now. But when I'm through with him, he won't even remember what a score is let alone how to keep track of one."

With that she turned and stalked down the hall toward her office. Maria leaned back and watched her as she walked away. A slow smile came to her lips as another giggle bubbled up from inside her. She might just drop by tomorrow to see how things go. Yeah, tomorrow felt like a good day to watch some fireworks. She shook her head in amusement. "Let the games begin..."

to be continued...

posted on 21-Oct-2001 7:59:37 AM
~chapter 7~

His scrutinizing gaze swept over the imposing stone structure in front of him as a sly smile played on his lips. Things couldn't be more perfect if he'd planned them himself. Sure, it needed a little fixing up...ok, so maybe 'a little' was an understatement.

There would be painting to do and a lot of remodeling on all levels. The roof would need repairing and the landscape could use a lot of work. The kitchen would need to be modernized and so would the gym. Not to mention the plumbing system looked like it could use some work. On second thought, maybe tearing it all down and starting fresh would be even better. Either way, this would be the perfect place to begin putting his plan into action.

Max pulled out his cell phone and hit the speed dial.

"Good afternoon, Evans Inc." Barbara's professional voice sounded on the other end.

"Barbara. It's Max. Call them and make an offer."

Barbara's eyebrow raised as she pulled out her pad and pen. "Alright. How high are you willing to go?"

"No limit. Offer them the world if need be. It needs to be in my possession by the end of business day tomorrow, got it?" Max asked as his eyes took on a look of uncertainty.

If he was going to accomplish all of this by tomorrow he had a lot of work to do. His mind flashed back to the way Liz tossed him to V the first chance she got and quickly amended his statement. With anyone else he could guarantee his victory. With Liz he wasn't so sure. "Uh, you know what? Make that the next day at noon...at the very latest by close of business."

Barbara wrote the instructions down and tapped her pen on the pad. "Got it. Anything else?"

"Yes. Reschedule my appointments for the next..." Max thought a moment. Just how much time was he willing to give this little project of his? At this point his best plan was to make no plans. But that wouldn't help when it came to business. "...two weeks."

Barbara's eyes widened in surprise. "Two weeks?? Max, have you lost your mind?" The questions popped out of her mouth before she got a chance to stop it. She'd been Max's assistant for the 5 years he'd been in management at his father's company and had never once seen him just 'take off' for a few weeks without keeping close to some kind of business schedule.

Sure, he was one of the jet setting crowds and would disappear at the drop of a hat to attend some gala or gamble the weekend away with some of his more eccentric friends, but through all of it business had always remained his number one priority. Now, this Blake woman drops in his life and business moves rapidly from first place to a distance second, maybe even third. He was definitely in over his head on this one. She just hoped he'd realize it before it was too late.

Max heard the shock in Barbara's voice and began to chuckle. If she only knew the half of it... "I've been asking myself the same thing, Barbara, believe me. I mean, since when does the ruthless corporate raider Max Evans volunteer at a children's center?"

"You did what??" Barbara was even more incredulous than before. This was beyond anything she could have ever imagined. Max did his best to stay as far away from children as possible.

"That's right. Every day." Max said the words not really believing them himself.

Barbara shook her head. "Well. I certainly never thought I'd see this day."

"What day?"

"The day you let a woman get to you so bad you couldn't think straight." Barbara quipped. "Max, if you're trying to impress her, take it from me, this is the wrong way to go about it. You haven't the faintest idea what you're doing when it comes to children."

"Why? What makes you think so?" Max asked with a bit of sudden uncertainty in his voice foregoing the chance to refute Barbara's assumption that he really was trying to impress Liz. What would be the point? She knew him too well to spend time arguing. "I did fine with your granddaughter when you brought her by the office.

Barbara started to laugh. "Yeah, you did. But that's only because you took about 10 seconds to look at her...from a safe distance no less than 5 feet away. It was just enough time to ohh and ahh appropriately, then you headed for your office where you hid until you were sure it was safe to come out."

"Hey, I had an important phone call to make." Max stated defensively.

"Yeah, right. To your barber." Barbara chuckled into the phone. "You do realize he called later that afternoon and asked what was wrong with you. He said you took forty-five minutes asking about types of shampoos and conditioners then hung up abruptly after cutting him off in the middle of a sentence. But don't worry. He completely understood when I told him I had Chelsea in the office. In fact, he got a big kick out of it. He was still laughing when I got off the phone with him."

"So nice to know I could bring laughter to someone's day." Max quipped sarcastically. "By the way, did I tell you I've been thinking of getting a new barber..."

Barbara chuckled as she shook her head. "Max, take it from me…if you really want to get to this woman take the usual route. Wine her. Dine her. Look deeply into her eyes when you ask her for a dance. But do not, under any circumstances, let her see you with children."

Max let out a sigh as he closed his eyes beginning to feel the weight of his impulsive decision earlier. "That's just it, Barbara. She won't let me close enough to run through the usual routine."

Barbara's smile widened as a new found respect for Kendall began to dawn in her eyes. So she was playing hard to get, huh? Most women Max knew were usually shameless enough to throw themselves at him. Maybe this woman was worth giving a chance. "She won't let you close enough? What are you saying, Max? Are you saying there's a woman out there in this world that can actually resist the dashing, mysterious, suave and debonair Max Evans? Someone who is immune to your immeasurable charms?"

"No." Max piped up quickly, his ego alert to the chance of being bruised...badly. "No, what I'm saying is that...that..." Max closed his eyes and waved his hand in the air as if desperately reaching for the right words but was having the hardest time finding them.

"Uh-huh?" Barbara prompted.

Dropping his hand, Max shrugged arrogantly when he finally came up with a way to describe Liz's reactions to him. "She wants to resist me, but she can't. She just hasn't found a way to...you know, to let me know that yet." Max finished weakly knowing just how lame that must have sounded to Barbara. He certainly knew how lame it sounded to his own ears.

Barbara bit back her laughter. "Max. Do you want some advice?"

"Please." He decided to drop all pretenses as he noticed how desperate his voice had become by this time. What exactly was Liz doing to him?

"If you're going to go ahead with this..." Barbara sighed deeply into the phone and rustled some papers around. "...just remember with kids you can't use your normal business tactics. You can't buy them out because they have nothing to sell. Intimidation is out of the question because I really don't think that would gain you any much needed points with that ball of fire, named Kendall, that you're trying to capture."

"Nope. I think the only thing that might work is bribing them. But again…you can't use normal tactics." Barbara's tone became light and airy, like a pre-school teacher speaking to the children in her class. "See…bribing children with money is a baaad thing, Max. Most of them can't count yet anyway so it reeeeally does no good. The customary bribing tool…is candy."

Barbara's voice suddenly became business-like as she laid out a plan. "So, what I'm going to do for you right now is check out candy companies that are up for sale. I'm sure we can arrange a buyout of at least three maybe four companies by the time you set foot back on enemy soil…" The hint of laughter in her voice was unmistakable. "Actually, with you in the battle…I'm thinking we should go for broke and buy up all the junk food companies on the Eastern seaboard. Maybe the entire U.S…"

"Great, Barbara. Just great. I need your advice and you're cracking jokes." Max said into the phone as he rolled his eyes.

Barbara laughed into the phone. "I'm sorry, Max. Just the thought of you with a bunch of kids..." She started to chuckle then tried to sober sensing his agitation on the other end. "Ok. Alright. This one's for real." Taking a deep breath and releasing it, Barbara continued with utmost sincerity. "Max, kids are really not that much different from adults. They need love and attention just like everyone else. Just be real with them. They're not that scary. Take it from a grandmother…one hug can go a very, very long way in winning a child's heart."

Max nodded his head and repeated her advice. "Ok. Don't be afraid. Be real. Give a hug." Confidence made it into his voice and his eyes began to shine with determination. "I can do that."

"Oh, and one more thing. Pray she doesn't make you change any diapers..." Barbara's laughter was irrepressible as the image of Max changing diapers came to her.

Max sighed and shook his head. "Gooood byyyye, Barbara." Max stated as he clicked his phone off and chuckled at Barbara's good-natured ribbing despite himself. In the next moment his face scrunched up as the thought of diapers filled his mind. "Diapers. Oh, yuck." He said with a shudder before banishing all thoughts of children and diapers and heading toward his newest purchase.
~~~~~~~~~
Max spent about another hour looking through the building he was about to purchase making notes and taking down specs. Then he turned his attention to the grounds and headed up the path toward the woods.

According to the layout of the landscape the realtor gave him there were a few more buildings up this way. His cell phone began to ring just as he was nearing the edge of the woods. He pulled out his cell and hit the button as he continued on his chosen course.

"Max here." Max stopped instantly the moment he heard the voice on the other end. "Alex. I didn't expect to hear back from you so soon. So, what did you find out?"

"Nothing. Which is why you're hearing back from me so soon." Alex Whitman said into the phone. "Man, whatever you're looking for on this dame, it's not going to be easy to find."

Max's eyebrows furrowed in concentration. "What do you mean? I mean, what gives you that impression?"

Alex let out a sigh. "I've run the check through the system. Everything that comes up about Kendall Blake is clean. She's an ordinary, normal citizen who has led an ordinary, normal life. Average grades. Average bills. Average jobs. Not so much as a parking ticket on her police records. I even talked to the principle of the high school she went to. Apparently she was so average he didn't even remember her. Neither did one of her high school teachers at first and when she did, she said she was nothing spectacular. Just a normal kid struggling through the pains of algebra."

"But that's impossible." Max stated with confidence. "This woman is nothing short of spectacular. There's no way she could walk in a room and not have people remember her."

Alex whistled low. "Whoa. Sounds like someone's got a crush."

Ignoring Alex's teasing, Max eyebrows furrowed in concentration as his brain shifted into overdrive. "Wait a minute. You said she was 'average' and 'normal'. I know for a fact she isn't. Not only that, I know I heard Michael call her by another name besides Kendall and she talked about changing who she was. You know what this sounds to me like?"

"What?"

"SOP." Max responded with some gravity.

"Standard Operating Procedure?" Alex asked as the wheels began to turn in his head. "Could be. But whose?"

Max shrugged. "FBI. Who else?"

"Witness protection?"

"That's what I'm thinking. They go overboard at times when it comes to making people disappear. They become so normal you just know they have to be hiding something big." Max confirmed. He paused a moment wondering if he should really go forward with his next request. An image of Liz's face flashed before him and he took a deep breath knowing he had no other choice. "Alex, I know what I'm about to ask is going beyond my deal with the bureau..."

"Who's your contact?" Alex asked pushing aside Max's preface and plunging into the mystery at hand.

Max breathed a sigh of relief. "Sheila Cobb. She'll be able to pull up any records on anyone in the past 10 years who has entered the program."

"And you're sure she'll help you?"

Max grinned. "Oh, yeah. She'll help. Just remind her of the night I saved her marriage. She'll do anything you ask." Sensing Alex's next question, Max answered quickly. "Don't ask. It's a long story."

Alex's smile sounded clearly in his voice. "Do you ever get tired of riding to the rescue on those white stallions of yours?"

Max started to chuckle. "Not yet. Haven't met a damsel in distress unattractive enough to pass on by." Max teased. He sobered quickly as a new thought came to him. "Hey, Alex, did you have any luck on Michael Guerin's friends or relatives?"

"Nope." Alex shuffled some papers as he looked through his notes. "Wait. Actually, he did know a Liz back in grade school, but she has blonde hair and freckles. She's married and has four children living in Idaho. I didn't think that was your gal."

"No, definitely not." Max confirmed. "Hey, why don't you run a check on younger sisters of classmates and friends. There is a bit of difference in their age. That could account for not finding anything the first go round."

"Do you realize how long that will take?" Alex asked before posing a suggestion. "Why don't we narrow it down a little. Say, his high school classmates."

"Fine. And add in there old girlfriends. College and up." Max added.

"Got it." Alex said as he finished writing in his notes. "If she has something to hide, we'll find it."

"Thanks, Alex." Max said gratefully. "Oh, and one more thing..."

"No one will hear it from me. Not even Kyle." Alex assured Max.

"Thanks man. I really owe you one." Max promised.

"What are you talking about? You owe my more than one."

"Yeah, yeah, yeah. And you know I'll pay them all back...each and every one." Max guaranteed with a grin. "Ok. You know where to reach me."

"Yep. Talk to you when I find something out." Alex confirmed.

"Alright. Over..." Max said with a nod of his head.

"...and out."
~~~~~~~~~~~~
As Max turned back toward the woods, his mind started to drift to the events of the day. After Liz left him to go on the tour from Chatter-land with V, he'd decided he couldn't possibly let that maneuver go without some retaliation. So, he volunteered. Every day. Till who knows when.

Max chuckled. Ok. So maybe he did know when. Until she gave in to him and surrendered. She was definitely a challenge and one that he was having quite a bit of fun with...if not without a bit of frustration thrown in for the heck of it. Boy, victory would truly be sweet this time...no matter how much Barbara tried to scare him away from his plan.

His thoughts quickly focused on Kendall. No, Liz. The more he thought of her, the more confused he became. Part of him saw her as Kendall, the woman the city of New Haven hailed as quiet and sweet, loving and kind. But for some reason he couldn't quite put his finger on, the name 'Liz' seemed to fit the personality of the woman he was getting to know. The one with so much fire and stubbornness in her eyes. The one with quick, witty comebacks and smolderingly seductive looks that seemed to be reserved just for him. Max shrugged. Perhaps he saw her as Liz because that's who she really was…no matter how hard she tried to hide it.

Her secret identity. The reason for it. Her hot-cold reactions to him. Her aloofness yet her down to earth approachability. Her strength and vulnerability. All of these things flowed through his mind as he tried to put together a clear picture of the woman who had completely captured his attention. She was clearly a woman of contrasts. Contrasts that he was more than willing to explore.

That her secrets and the reasons for them seemed to be a matter of national security intrigued Max. If he was right and she was in the witness protection program, that could mean only one thing. Either she or someone close that she knew had turned against someone. The question now was who? And was there still a danger to being discovered? And why, of all people, would she trust Michael Guerin with that information?

Alex would find out. On that, Max would stake his life. And with this small hint of her past, Max began to understand her a little better. Her fear of getting close to people. Her instant mistrust. The pain he saw flash in her eyes. It all made sense in the grand scheme of things. Yet, there was still so much to learn...

And it wasn’t as if Liz were his only problem. There was the mystery woman he'd seen in the woods. Her voice had haunted him throughout the day and he found himself on several occasions humming the song she'd sung. It was so hauntingly sad, but in a way there was an underlying strength. A sense that the survival wasn't an option...it was a must. It was comforting somehow because deep inside he knew that feeling all too well.

Max shook his head. What he wouldn't give to hear her voice again. It had reached into his soul and moved him in the space of a heartbeat. He had the strangest sensation that he really did know the singer. That she wasn't a stranger after all. Which made everything even more confusing for him. Max shook himself from his reverie as he continued along the path deeper into the woods.

He deeply breathed in the evening air and smiled to himself as he looked up the sky as it grew darker by the minute. He hesitated a moment not sure if he should continue realizing that the hour was getting later. Nah, he'd go ahead. Soon the stars would be out and the full moon would shine brightly enough to light his way back to the car.

Stars. He remembered a time when every star symbolized a wish to come true for him. And the moon. The moon was the gift he had planned on roping. Max sighed deeply. What a fool he'd been then. Believing in the stars. Believing in dreams and fairy tales.

Strange. For someone who no longer believed in fairy tales he sure had been talking about them a lot lately. With Kendall. No, with Liz. Boy, he was really going to have to get used to that. Now if he could only find out more about her...

The sound of giggles reached Max's ears and pulled him out of his reverie. He stopped and looked around him, trying to determine the direction of the laughter when he suddenly realized it was coming from directly up ahead and to the right. He quickly glanced at the map in his hand and glanced back up. That was supposed to be in the direction of the chapel.

He heard the giggles again and something powerful propelled him forward as Max swiftly headed down a path toward the direction of the childlike sounds.
~~~~~~~~
Her deep brown eyes locked with his. At first, she looked frightened...like she'd certainly turn and vanish into the night, much like the singing angel in his dreams. Then in the next instant with her eyes still locked onto his, a slow mischievous smile began to take control of her little rosebud lips.

She coyly turned away from him and sat on the one stone bench at the front of the gutted chapel being careful to smooth out the creases of her white flowing dress. The roof of the darkening cobblestone chapel was open to the sky due to large branches having fallen through to the floor during a recent storm. Max fancied a conspiracy between the chapel and the nearby trees to ruin the roof for this one purpose...to illuminate the throne of the little Princess who graced this place with her presence.

A sudden movement from her caused Max to focus back on her face as she looked at him and gracefully patted the seat next to her. The invitation being given was in a manner so familiar to him, but he couldn't place his finger on where he'd seen it before.

Max hesitated not sure exactly what to do. If given the chance, his favorite place in the world to be right now would not be sitting in a run-down chapel with a little girl...no matter what spell this place and the child had begun to cast on him. He was clearly out of his element. What would happen if she wanted to play tea party or something? Barbara was right. He hadn't the faintest idea what to do when it came to children.

Yet she seemed so open...even eager...for his company. And she was so beautiful with her long dark hair and twinkling dark eyes he'd barely been able to take his eyes off of her. Very much like an enchanted little elf. Maybe she knew the secrets of a world he'd never be able to discover on his own. Perhaps just a few minutes wouldn't hurt him any...

"What's your name?" Max asked once he followed her and sat down next to her.

"Garden Princess." Was her sweet, enigmatic reply.

Max smiled at the fairy-like name not the least bit surprised. "Garden Princess, huh? So, where did you get a name like that?"

"From my subjects, of course." She said with a properly graceful wave of her hand as if they were right before them.

"Oh. Of course." Max looked around the dimly lit chapel then returned his gaze to her upturned face. "Well, where are these subjects of yours?"

"Everywhere."

"But, I don't see anyone."

"Of course not, silly." She leaned forward and whispered to him. "They're invincible."

Max tried to hide his smile at her improper choice of words. "Don't you mean 'invisible'?"

"No." Dark curls danced around her shoulders as she shook her head. "I mean invincible. You can't see them." She maintained stubbornly.

"Ah, I see. My mistake." Max glanced back around the chapel once more as an uncomfortable silence filled the room. His mind was desperately trying to come up with something else to say.

Before he got a chance, she leaned toward him and asked, "Do you want to know why I'm a princess?"

Max smiled down into her sparkling eyes so full of childish fairy tales and dreams grateful she'd chosen to speak. "Sure. Why are you a princess?"

She sat up properly, holding her head high as if she really were royalty. "Because my mommy is the queen. I've never seen her cuz she's been out fightin' the Evil Wizard. But I just know she's got to be the most booutiful mommy in all the world. Grandnanny says so."

Max stared at her in amazement. He couldn't tell if she was pretending or if she really believed the story she was weaving for him. "You're mommy is out fighting an evil wizard, huh? Does he have magic spells that she has to ward herself against?"

"Uh-huh. Mommy has a magic potion that she drinks that keeps her safe. That's why she's out fighting the wizard. She's the oooonly one who can and not be dest'oyed." She announced proudly flipping her long dark curls behind her shoulder as her dimples deepened in her cheeks.

"I see." Max said not really seeing anything at all. He couldn't quite understanding what magic land this little slip of a girl was living in but something about her made him want to stay. Which was a first for him. Usually children made him want to run in the opposite direction. Not because he didn't like children. He just never really knew what to say to them when he was around them. Somehow, this little beauty made it easy. "So, do you have a secret potion you take to keep you safe?"

She shook her head solemnly. "No. But when I'm here in my secret garden no one can hurt me. Mommy protected this place just for me. She surrounded it with my invincible subjects who make me invincible to the evil wizard too."

A confused look flashed over Max's face. "But...we're not in a garden."

She looked at him as if he'd lost his mind. "Sure we are, silly. Don't you see it all around us?" She asked as she looked around, her childish eyes apparently seeing things that only her imagination could conjure up. Suddenly she turned to him and grabbed his hand and began to tug on it as she jumped off the bench. "Come on. I'll show ya!"

Max allowed her to pull him up and drag him toward the wall as he began to chuckle at her childish energy and exuberance. He pulled up short and his smile faded quickly when his eyes connected with the wall in front of him with complete awe and amazement.

Before him was a mural of sorts painted on the stone walls of the church. It was a wonder he hadn't seen it before. Three of the four walls were painted as if from a scene straight out of "The Secret Garden" or some other fairy tale. There were trees with low branches Max could imagine climbing to get a better view of the lake just beyond the wall that was in the background.

As Garden Princess led him around the chapel he saw a world full of roses and wisteria vines, weeping willows and hydrangia bushes, spanish moss hanging from the tallest of trees, tulips and daisies, and flowers he'd never knew existed before. Every imaginable color was available for the eye to behold. Blue skies, a crystal lake, green grass that would never wither and die and flowers bursting with a brilliance that rivaled those he'd seen in real life.

This enchanted realm even came equipped with a castle deep in the backdrop and what looked like miniature soldiers to guard the gates. The trees that dipped their leaves over the open roof combined with real vines that crept through the chapel walls only served to authenticate the dreamland Max felt as if he'd stepped into.

Princess pulled him back down onto the stone bench as she completed the tour of her garden, her childish chatter not having stopped in her excitement to show him everything. She was so proud of her place...her special garden...and it poured out from her every word and action. "Do ya like it?"

Max looked around once more as a brilliant smile lit his face. "I love it. It's unlike anything I've ever seen." He whispered quietly before turning back to her.

She clapped her hands excitedly. "Goodie! That means you'll come back some time and play with me, huh?" The lonely plea in her eyes nearly broke his heart. There was simply no way he could resist. And even if he could, he knew deep in his heart he didn't want to.

He wrapped his arm around her shoulder and impulsively pulled her to him. "You bet, Princess."

That her little arms wrapped around him as far as they could go to give him a hug not only surprised him but filled his heart in a way he'd never known before. She quickly drew back and looked up into his face a happy light shining in her eyes. For a moment he got the strangest feeling. As if he'd seen those eyes before...

Max leaned forward being drawn into this little girl's fancy more and more each second. "So, am I your only guest or do you invite just anybody to your secret garden?"

She shook her shiny dark head with a slight frown. "Oh, no. Not just anybody. I have to be careful of the Evil Wizard, don't you remember?"

"Oh, that's right. The Evil Wizard." Max responded. "Have you ever seen the Evil Wizard?"

She shook her head emphatically causing her curls to bounce delightfully around her shoulders. "Oh, no. I've never seen him in person."

"Well, than how do you know who he is? I mean, I could be the Evil Wizard and you wouldn't even know it."

"Yes, I would." With a confident nod of her royal head.

"How?"

She tilted her head to the side as she thought, reminding Max of someone. She turned her large dark eyes full of seriousness on him. "Cuz my heart tells me so."

"Because your heart...?" Max studied her for a moment surprised by the maturity of her thoughts mixed in with her child-like faith. Who was this little girl and where did she come from? And who taught her how to dream up these fairy tale worlds and listen to her heart? The more he watched her the more intrigued he became. "So, what does your heart tell you about me?"

The sweet pretty smile dimpled her rosy cheeks. "You’re Mr. Prince Charming." She declared sweetly.

Max started to laugh. "I'm Prince..." He shook his head in disbelief. Her little mind was such a mystery. "What makes you think I'm Prince Charming?"

Her feet began to swing in front of her as she looked up at the ceiling of the chapel becoming lost in thought. "Well, cuz… Cuz you're eyes sparkle like all of the Prince Charming's in my books and…cuz you're searchin' for your Princess."

"Searching for my Princess." Max repeated incredulously becoming more and more bewildered by this child's responses with each passing moment.

"Uh-huh. That is why you're here, right?" She asked innocently not knowing the effect her words would have on him.

Why was he here? The EMG dock renovation project, of course, would be his first answer. But even Max knew it was more than that. He'd come to New Haven to find Kendall and instead found a woman named Liz calling herself Kendall. In confusion, and frustration he'd gone to the garden to find some peace and answers...and instead found his singing angel. Now, a day later he finds this charming little girl who called herself 'Garden Princess' and claimed he was Prince Charming. Why was he still here in the midst of all this mystery and enchantment? For a man of reality and hard cold facts, at that moment, he hadn't the foggiest idea.

Max shook his head. "I'm not really sure why I'm here, Princess. Maybe you can help me with that. How would I know if I'm looking for my Princess?"

She put a finger up to her cheek as if she were thinking. "Well...first, do you already have a princess?"

Max shook his head. "Nope. Afraid not."

"Kay. Do you wanna princess?" She asked once again beginning to swing her legs in front of her.

Max shrugged beginning to enjoy playing this childish game. "I guess so. What Prince Charming in his right mind wouldn't, huh?"

She put her pretty little hands up to her cover her mouth as she giggled, her laughter giving Max the warmest feeling inside. "Right." She agreed with a cute bounce of her head. "Then I guess you're lookin' for your princess, you just don't know who she is yet."

"I see." Max let out a dramatic sigh that sent the Princess into a fit of giggles. "So, now that I know I'm looking for a princess, how do I find her?"

The little girl got up from the bench and surprised him by standing in front of him. Without saying a word she began twirling as if she'd forgotten all about him being there. Max leaned forward and watched her a moment. She couldn't be more than 5 or 6 years old yet her form was perfect in the way she held her head and her arms. And the strength she had to spin on her toes was amazing to him. Max was no talent scout, but even he could see the talent this little spirited princess possessed.

Suddenly she stopped as quickly as she began and came to stand directly in front of him. She reached up and put each of her tiny hands against his face. As her dark eyes held his for a moment, Max an incredible sense of déjà vu. As if he'd seen her before. As if those eyes had spoken to him in a dream or read his soul in another life somehow.

She tilted her head to the side and turned the corner of her rosebud lips up into a smile. "Wish for her. Wish on the stars. And when they give her to you, you'll know you have a love that'll last aaaallll the way till the happily ever after."

Suddenly a distant bell was heard ringing and the little girl's hands flew to her mouth again. Gone was the little girl with the poise of royal mystery enshrouding her and in her place was the expression of a little girl caught doing something she shouldn't.

"Oh, no. I forgot! I gotta go!" She turned to run away then stopped, quickly turned around and kissed Max sweetly, unexpectedly on the cheek. Then she turned and ran out the door waving and calling over her shoulder, "Bye, Mr. Prince Charming!" before he had a chance to react.

Max was speechless. He had no idea what just happened. What was it with this town anyway? Ever since he stepped foot here he'd run into beautiful creatures all over the place. Creatures with two things in common...they always disappeared long before he was ready to let them go and they never gave him a straight answer when he asked their name.

Max sighed and shrugged his shoulders as he leaned back and looked up into the night sky. Why not? Max picked a star and did something he hadn't done in years. He made a wish.

And the stars heard him...
~~~~~~~~~~~
His eyes as green as the Emerald Isles he called home cut through the tension at the table. "So what are ye sayin'?" His thickly accented question pierced through to the very heart of their dilemma.

"I’m sayin' that Paddy's been captured." An equally thick accent replied back as his eyes darted to each person at the round table, his message weighing heavily on each mind. "That without him, our plan canna go forward."

His hand slammed down on the table shaking the glasses half-full of ale sitting by his side. "That's not acceptable, Gavin. Not acceptable at all."

"What would ye have us do, Colin?" Gavin asked as he leaned forward, his nervousness evident in the way he twisted his cap in his hand. "We canna very well go visit him in prison now, can we? Paddy’s the best. Without him, our plan’s as good as dead."

Colin leaned back and rubbed the stubble on his chin, a sign to those who knew him best that he was truly worried by this new piece of information. Suddenly his Irish eyes began to shine and a crooked smile twisted his pouty lips. "I got it, lads. If we canna go to Paddy, we'll just have to bring Paddy to us."

Ned, a short-tempered redhead sitting across the table from Colin snorted and threw back his head. "And just how do ye plan to do that, Colin?"

Colin's scheming smile deepened as his eyes flitted from one anxious face to the other. "Two words, lads. Max Evans."

to be continued....

posted on 21-Oct-2001 8:05:48 AM
~Chapter 8~

Liz was up long before the morning sun. She hadn't been able to concentrate at all the previous afternoon at work once V dropped Max's little bombshell on her. She couldn't believe him. Of all the low down things to do, volunteering at a children's center had to be the lowest!

Liz ended up taking work home that evening so she could get caught up. By the time she went to bed she was exhausted. But even then, she couldn't sleep. Bits and pieces of conversations with Max kept rolling around in her mind causing her to toss and turn almost as if she were fighting an unseen foe.

Around 3:30 she decided to give up trying to get any sleep and decided to put her time to good use. She got out a notepad and pen and began jotting down ideas…for payback. If Max was determined to make her life a living hell, then he'd better be prepared to receive the same. Sometime around 6:00 she was able to fall back asleep again with a devilish grin on her face and a notepad full of scribbles by her side.
~~~~~~~~~
Across town in a tiny cottage, an alarm clock rang a wake up call to a man who'd slept soundly the whole night through. Max hit the off button and smiled as he stretched himself awake. Ahhh. This is it. The day I begin to blow Kendall Blake's…uh, Liz's…world apart.

Max chuckled to himself as his eyes began to shine with mischief his thoughts drifting to how he'd gotten her back for yesterday's little tour stunt. He hadn't had this much fun in what seemed like a lifetime. In fact, he couldn't remember the last time the beginning of a day had dawned so brightly.

Max sat up, turned the radio on and threw the covers off him. He began to hum along with the tune coming from the speakers as a few words of the song began to filter into his mind.

"…just like the games with you and me. Resolution hard to see. But that's ok. Cuz I don't see things that are plain to see. I've got a dream to take you over. Exploding like a supernova. I'm gonna crash into your world. And that's no lie..."

"…if there's a way to infiltrate you. Sway your mind and complicate you. I'm gonna crash into your world. And that's no lie…"


Max's grin deepened. Yeah. That's exactly what he wanted to do. Crash into her world. In fact, when he was done, her life would never be the same. Just like his hadn't since the second he laid eyes on her. Max let out a sigh. Time to get ready. He had the life of a beautiful brunette to complicate...
~~~~~~~~~~~
Max was waiting in the lobby for her when Liz arrived. His dazzling smile and cheery "Good morning" combined with her lack of sleep for the last two nights automatically put Liz in a bad mood. Good thing she was prepared for him today. All she needed was ten minutes alone and he wouldn't know what hit him…

"Max." She nodded curtly to him before taking a sip of her coffee and walking toward V's desk to pick up her messages. Just the glimpse of him she'd already gotten nearly blew her away and made her knees go weak. In fact, she had a hard time making it to the desk without tripping and spilling her coffee. He was wearing a medium gray suit and deep cranberry tie that that blended nicely with his skin tones and thick dark hair and brought out the chestnut hues in his sparkling eyes. The suit was nice. And expensive. Hope he isn't too attached to it.

"Good morning, V." Liz turned back to Max and tried to put some warmth into her voice. "So, the big, bad wolf has made his way into our home for good, huh? Well, we certainly need the help and don't begrudge the extra hands. Just make sure you don't get the urge to eat us in lieu of grandmother."

Max's grin broadened as he thrust his hands into his pocket. "Don't worry. I had a large breakfast."

"Really? Anyone I know?" Liz quipped just as carefully shifted her laptop from one hand to the other.

Chuckling, Max leaned forward slightly his eyes snapping with undeniable hunger as his gaze quickly raked over her from head to toe then back up lingering briefly along the modest neckline of her pale pink sweater before burning with intensity when they rested longingly on her rose colored lips. The devilish curve of his sensual lips matched the suggestively aimed whisper when his eyes flicked back up to meet hers. "Not yet. But I am more than willing to sample any delicacies that you might be offering. Right now, I'm thinking a chocolate topped raspberry tart is definitely in order."

Liz's mouth went dry. Her mind frantically searched for a witty come back but discarded every last one of them as being lame and falling woefully short of the strength required to battle the bright bursts of amber in Max's darkening eyes. Feeling a tingle of desire run up and down her spine, Liz's fingernails dug into the Styrofoam coffee cup and her back straightened with determination. Max Evans was not going to unnerve her like this every time he was within speaking distance. She simply wouldn't let him.

A slender eyebrow rose right along with the perfect double entendre comment to shut him down. At least, she hoped it would. "In that case, it's too bad the bakery is closed."

The twinkle in his eyes let her know she'd failed. "Is it now?" Max shrugged casually as a thoughtful expression masked the intention of his words. "So, tell me. Is that just for me or for all potential customers?"

Liz glanced around her, the corners of her mouth twitching with amusement. "Do you see anyone else asking to raid the cookie jar?"
"Believe me, Kendall…" Max's voice lowered intimately. "…if all I wanted was a cookie, this is the last place I'd be."

"Really?" Despite herself, Liz's curiosity was piqued by his response. They were in a childrens' shelter after all. "Why is that?"

"Because cookies are common. And you…" Max's eyes raked over Liz again as his hand unconsciously drifted upward to push a wayward piece of hair away from her face back behind her ear. "…are anything but that."

Liz fought the urge to close her eyes and just drink in the sensation of his fingers feathering through her hair. She swallowed hard her faltered question coming out in a whisper. "I…I am?"

Max took a slight step forward and leaned in closer, his fingers still tangled in her thick locks and his eyes never leaving hers as they became dazed and focused solely on him. "Yes. You definitely are. In fact, you’re the rare dessert that makes a mouth water and an appetite become insatiable with just one look." Max's fingers drifted to the exposed skin of Liz's creamy neck to brush lightly and send delightful chills of fire coursing through her. "The kind that makes a man want to take his time devouring you so that every single last morsel is enjoyed to completion…"

"Good grief! Kendall, it looks like it's gonna be another one of those days." The conversation was halted when V hung up the phone with a decided click then scooped up a pile of papers and walked up to Liz. Handing her the pile of messages she'd just taken, V shook her head. "I'm telling you, you are one hot chick today. Seems like everyone wants a piece of you."

A slow smile drifted over Max's lips and his eyes held a hint of mischief as his point had been proven by unexpected means. He raised his eyebrows in a slight wiggle. "See what I mean?"

God, he has the most amazing eyes. And that slow, sexy smile… God, Liz, you've got to get a hold of yourself. You've not even been with him ten minutes and he's already gotten to you…twice. Liz's gaze wavered uncertainly for a moment before her chin came up in defiance and her hand forcefully brushed his away.

The shields around her heart were at full strength now as her eyes flashed with fire. "Don't dig in too soon there, Max. You're on my time now." She cast Max a determined glare as she clear her throat and quickly donned a coat of aloofness while reaching for the messages from V.

Instead of going back to her desk V stood there staring at Max with complete unabashed adoration. Liz flipped quickly through her messages, as the smile of amused admiration directed toward Liz turned to V uncomfortably. Liz glanced up in time to see the awestruck expression on V's face and the look of annoyance flash in Max's eyes before his fake smile deepened to brighten the room. She glanced back and forth between the two of them. Should she? For some reason the thought of him spending more time with an obviously adoring fan sent a pang of…something…flowing through her.

Nah. Not today. Today he was all hers. But it was good to know she had a back-up torture plan in case her others failed. On second thought, she did need a momentary distraction.

"Thank you, V, for the messages." She turned to Max. "I hope you don’t mind, but it looks like I have a few phone calls to make now that can't wait. Why don't I have V show you around her area for a few minutes so you get a feel for what we do here?"

Max's smile abruptly disappeared and she saw his adam's apple bob up and down as he swallowed. "You…you will be coming back, right?"

Liz bit back a smile. "Yes, I'll be back. It'll only take about ten minutes then I'll show you to your first assignment."

Relief flashed in the depths of his amber eyes. Until he saw the knowing twinkle in hers. Get a grip, Max. If you don't show your weaknesses she can't use them against you like she did yesterday. Max nodded in agreement and flashed a smile that could make ice cream melt. Liz certainly felt the effect in her knees as they wobbled unexpectedly. She took a deep breath and tried to still the butterflies that had begun to flutter in her stomach.

If she could just concentrate on her plans, everything would be fine. He'd be out of her life in no time and she wouldn't have to worry anymore about things like breathing and thinking and keeping her legs strong and steady whenever she got a whiff of his cologne…

Max's agreement interrupted her thoughts. "Ok. That sounds like a plan."

"Good." Liz turned to V who had just gotten off the phone. "V. I'm going to entrust our new volunteer here to your care for a few moments. I need to make a few phone calls so why don't you show Max what you do at the front desk."

V beamed before jumping from her seat and rushing around the desk. "OK!" She grabbed Max's hand and practically jerked him from the spot where he was standing. Liz smiled to herself and shook her head. Poor guy. No. Poor was what he'd been what *she* got through with him.

As she started to back away, Liz left V one more instruction. "Oh, and V…since Max seems a bit hungry, why don't you find him a bag of cookies to chew on…" She held back her laughter at the expression on Max's face and her eyes took on a wicked sparkle as she headed off down the hall. She was unaware that Max was craning his neck to keep an eye on her for as long as he could...as if he was trying to hold on to his last bit of hope before it disappeared around the corner leaving him to sink in V's endless chatter.

As soon as Liz turned the corner, she headed for her office, dropped her things on her desk and took off toward the supply room. She quickly grabbed several large paper clips, glue, tape, a few marbles, copier toner and a box full of spreadsheets. She headed off toward the old workroom and began to set her plan in motion.

Ten minutes later she wiped the dust off her hands and smoothed her skirt with a satisfied smile. That ought to do it. She let out a contented sigh. Who ever knew years ago that paying more attention to the 'lessons' the repair guy taught her than to her tutor would come in handy some day?

She rounded the corner in time to catch V regaling Max with the story about how she got the award for selling the most cookies one year in Girl Scouts. His glazed expression told Liz everything she needed to know about how his last 10 minutes had gone. "Well, Max, are you ready for you're first assignment?" Liz asked as she walked up to the desk.

Until he heard Liz's voice, Max had been in a self-induced daze. Fortunately in his line of work he'd toned his 'tuning out the unnecessary conversation' skills and knew when to pick up on and respond to relevant information. Unfortunately, in V's case, none of it was.

So, he let his mind wander...to Liz. And how incredibly beautiful she looked today. She had on a pale pink sweater set that accentuated her every curve and a short black skirt that showed off her beautiful legs. Her business like demeanor was a side he hadn't seen before and one that could definitely keep his interest...along with every other side he'd seen so far. Somehow he got the impression there were way too many sides to discover in just two weeks. And he wanted to know them all. This little project of his might turn into something a little more permanent if he didn't watch himself.

Not to mention the way her eyes clouded over with desire when they'd been talking earlier. Bantering was actually more like it. Fun, quick, flirtatious banter with a whole heap of truth behind the suggestive words. God, she was so good at that. Letting him tower above her in verbal victory only to deftly stab him with a witty comeback that almost left him speechless. Or a look that made him loose all sense of himself. And the way she fought to keep from sinking under his spell when his fingers ran through her hair…

Max let out a sigh. Yes, she was truly a mesmerizing woman.

A look of relief swept across his face and he smiled suddenly when he heard her voice a question that would extract him from certain boredom. "Lead the way."

As they were walking down the hall far out of V's earshot, Max commented. "Thank you. For a moment there I thought you were going to permanently assign me to be V's assistant."

Liz glanced up at him. "Thanks isn't necessary. I did it for me not you."

"For you?" Max asked his voice suddenly taking on a suggestive meaning. "Jealous, perhaps?"

Liz rolled her eyes. "Don't get so excited. I simply meant that if I put you with V, we'd never get any work out of her for all the stars in her eyes. It was a purely administrative move on my part."

Max's eyes began to sparkle. "Uh-huh. Jealous." He shook his head and began to chuckle. "I love it."

Liz just shrugged her shoulders in an effort to ward off the feeling that his words had a bit of truth to them. "Whatever you have to tell yourself to make it through the day." Because what I have planned for you, you'll definitely need it. A mischievous sparkle came into her eyes as she led him toward a room at the end of the hall.

"And just what do you tell yourself to make it through the night?" Max's question caused Liz to glance up at him sharply.

"Excuse me?"

"When you're lying in bed…all alone. And you see visions of…"

"Sugar plums dancing in my head?" Liz quickly finished the old children's rhyme to stop the images Max's words were sure to conjure up. There was no way she was going to let him gain another inch in this tug of war they were playing. He'd already closed the distance between them too much as it was. Max had to hide a chuckle as Liz's eyes raked over him meaningfully. "Huh. I didn't picture you as the Old St. Nick type, but hey…stick around till Christmas and we just might be able to use that."

Stopping suddenly, Liz inclined her head toward a closed door and ignored the knowing smirk on Max's face. He was no dummy, that was for sure. He knew exactly what she was up to with the sudden change of topics. That much was evident in his bright, dancing eyes. Damn him for being able to read me so well. That just means its time to pour on the charm…

Liz cleared her throat. "Well. Here we are." She turned to Max, her back to the door, and clasped her hands in front of her. "So, tell me the truth. Are you sure you're ready for what awaits you behind door number 1 here?"

A cocky grin spread over Max's face. "Hand me a spoon, Beautiful, because I'm ready for anything you want to dish out."

A dark eyebrow raised as Liz fought to hide a smile by biting her lower lip. "Well, then I guess we should get started…"

The room was sparsely decorated. It had one table, shelves and a copy machine along the wall. Obviously a work room. There was a bulletin board with messages of planned activities and reminders from various workers.

There were two boxes in the middle of the table along with several city directories and phone books. Liz and Max walked fully into the room. "I'm not really quite sure what you expected when you volunteered. I hope it wasn't for things here to be as exciting or challenging as the dog-eat-dog world of corporate raiding. But, I think you'll find what we do here is meaningful work even if it can be tedious at times."

Max watched her as she walked around to the head of the table. Suddenly, he got this gut feeling that something wasn't quite right. She was being too...what was the word? Too agreeable...too complaisant…too calm about the present situation to not raise a questioning eyebrow. He had certainly expected her to put up more of a fight than she was. Maybe she'd resigned herself to his presence. Somehow he didn't think that was the case.

"It doesn't matter to me. I find a way of always having fun with whatever I do." Max stated confidently with a shrug. "I'm just here to help."

Liz glanced up and eyed him carefully. That almost sounded sincere. Almost...but not quite. No, she couldn't bring herself to believe he was only here out of the goodness of his heart. "Well, good then. You'll have lots of fun with these."

Liz pulled out a stack of papers and plopped them on the table. "I'm sure you're aware that although we receive some state funding, most of our financial support comes from donors. These here are a list of donors from the past 6 months. We're going to be sending out a mailing soon and we need someone to go through this list. You just happened to be that lucky person."

"Now, what we need you to do is check the addresses listed here against the addresses in the latest phone books or directories. This will help us with…"

Max raised his hand to stop her. "I'm sorry to interrupt, but don't you have a database that has all of this information in it already?"

Liz looked down at the table unable to meet his eyes when she lied. "Uh, no. We still do the old method of searching. Someday we'll try to bring the center into the 21st century, but for right now you'll just have to do."

Max narrowed his eyes. Why didn't he believe her? Maybe because she couldn't meet his eyes. Or maybe it was the sudden rose colored flush of her cheeks. Or maybe he was just being paranoid…. "Ok. So what do I do again?"

Liz let out a little sigh of relief. That had been close. "Just double check the addresses with the phone book. Then when you're done with that…." Liz walked over to the other box and pulled out a stack of papers. "I need you to make three copies of each stack, front and back. Only I need them collated and stapled. Then stacked in rows according to months, alphabetizing them within each month."

Max looked at her like she'd gone crazy. A slow smile crossed her face. "Max? Did you get all of that?"

Max cleared his throat unwilling to let on that he had no idea what she just said. "Of course, I did. I'm not completely helpless in an office, you know." Seeing the doubt in her eyes he added, "Look, I run a multi-trillion dollar corporation every day, I can handle a copier and some staples."

Liz's smile deepened knowingly. "Riiight." She moved toward the door. "Ok. Well, that's about it. If you have any questions, my office is right across the hall. Have fun!" She closed the door behind her leaving Max alone to stare at the pile of papers in front of him while she went to her office to wait…
~~~~~~~~
Three hours later, Max leaned back with a sigh of relief. He hadn't done this kind of mindless detail work since he first started at his father's company over 6 years ago. He got up and walked around needing to stretch his legs for a moment.

He'd discarded his suit jacket almost immediately when Liz left and dove right into the work she'd given him trying his best to prove he was indeed useful to her. Even if it only was at some menial task. He wanted her to know that he wasn't there to cause problems. He was actually there to help. That way, she just might listen to him for once instead of jumping to conclusions. Maybe once and for all he could tell her the truth about his role in this whole twisted scheme his brother had pulled him into.

Max turned when he heard the door open hoping to find Liz's beautiful face looking in on him. Instead he saw V's dazed smile and tried his best to return a smile with as much warmth.

“Hi! I just thought I’d check on you and see how you’re doing and to bring you this.” V’s perky voice announced as she entered the room with a tray of snacks and a drink for him.

“Thanks.” Max said as he took the drink from her. “Doing fine. I’m finally done with all of these lists.” He gestured toward the piles of papers on the table.

“What lists are you working on?” V asked as she came over to look at the work he’d been doing.

“Donor’s lists from the past 6 months.” Max explained as he popped a cookie in his mouth.

“Donor’s lists? But...why in the world would she have you...” V picked up the lists full of notes that Max had written and began shaking her head. “Are you sure Kendall told you to go through these?

Max answered somewhat uncertainly. “Yes, she did. Why?”

V looked up at him as he took a quick drink of the soda she’d brought him. “Well, I’ve already entered these in the system.”

At V's words, Max nearly choked on his drink. He cleared his throat. “You...you what?”

“I’ve entered these in the database. You know...in the computer. In fact, I just got done with these just last week. See the date at the bottom and my initials?” V held a paper up to him for him to see.

Max’s face went white then it turned red. She tricked him again. And what was worse, she lied to him in addition to that. He should have known! In fact, he did know! He knew something was up the way she was so obliging! He'd just wasted 3 hours of his valuable time doing work that had already been done. Who knows what businesses he might have been able to topple if he hadn't been needlessly playing secretary. She really was asking for war.

"Max? Max, are you alright?" V asked with concern.

Max's stunned gaze shifted to V's face. "Uh, yeah. Yeah, I'm fine. Let me get this straight. You do have a database where all donors are listed."

V nodded her head. "Yeah, we do. In fact, Kendall's the one who has basically technologized this place. She's gotten us all the latest software and made our record keeping a whole lot easier. I'm surprised she didn't tell you."

Max shook his head as his jaws tightened. "I'm not." He said tersely. Noticing the shocked look on V's face, Max tried to hide his irritation with a smile. "She's so busy I'm sure it just slipped her mind. Is she in her office now?"

"Uh, no. She's with one of the kids." V said hesitantly.

Max pursed his lips as the wheels in his head began to turn. "Alright then. Let me ask you before I do something else that doesn't need to be done…" Max walked to the table and indicated the papers that needed to be copied. "…have these been copied yet?"

V looked at them. "No, they haven't. Now these are something that do need to be done. I just haven't had the chance…"

"Fine." Max said rather curtly. "I'll copy these and if Kendall returns before I'm done, will you let her know I'd like a moment with her please?"

Recognizing the authoritative dismissal in his voice, V nodded and moved to the door. "Sure. I'll let her know as soon as I see her." She slipped out of the room and almost ran right into Liz who was standing outside the door waiting for her.

"Well? What happened?" Liz whispered.

V shrugged a look of confusion clouding her eyes. "He didn't seem to even know we had a database. Kendall, why didn't you tell him…"

Liz shook her head impatiently. "Never mind that now. Was he angry? Upset? What?"

"Well, he seemed surprised and irritated, but calm."

"Calm? He was calm??" Liz hadn't been expecting that one. A mischievous glint made her eyes sparkle. "Well, that'll change."

V looked at her like she'd lost her mind. "What's going on with you and Max?"

"Oh, don't worry, V. It's just a game Max wanted to play….and I intend to win."
~~~~~~~
Inside the room Max was pacing in front of the table his mind racing with thoughts and questions. He really couldn't blame her. He'd actually expected resistance. He just thought she would be more vocal about it. Instead she'd chosen to take the subtle route to prove her point.

But what point was she trying to prove? That she didn't want him around? That much was obvious. But it wasn't the reason for the stunt she pulled. No, she was trying to tell him something else. What was it though? That she didn't need his help? Nah. He suspected that if push came to shove and she really did need help with this place, she'd be willing to at least consider taking help even from him. She cared too much about the work here to let personal feelings get in the way.

Finally, Max let out a sigh and shrugged his shoulders. On second thought, she was way too complicated to figure out in a few minutes. And he had things to do. Why waste time right now trying to figure it out? Suddenly, a slow smile came to his lips. That was it! She was trying to tell him he was wasting his time with her. Max shook his head and started to chuckle. If she only knew how patient he could be when it was something he really wanted…

Max quickly found his cell phone and dialed his Manhattan office number. "Hi, Barbara. Max. Listen, I need you to send something to me. I want you to go in my office and get my box…"

"You mean the box? The one Diana gave you?" Barbara asked in amazement.

"Yeah, that's the one. I want you to gift wrap it and send it to me…"

"But Max, that's your special box. Are you sure…?" Alright. Now things were going a little too far.

"Yes, Barbara, I know it's my special box. Just…just do it ok? Oh, and by the way, I need it delivered to me by this afternoon."

"This afternoon? But Max, that's impossible…"

"Nothing's impossible, Barbara. I don't care how much it costs…even if you have to send Steve down with the jet. I want it this afternoon."

"Yes, sir. Gift wrapped, huh? What kind? Are we talking for a business associate?" Barbara knew the answer to that one long before she asked it. No doubt this hair-brained idea was another Kendall Blake initiated moves.

"No, make the paper outlandishly beautiful. With ribbons and bows."

"Ribbons and bows." Barbara repeated unsure of what she was hearing. "And the card?"

Max shook his head. "No card. I'll handle that in my own special way."

"I'm sure you will." Barbara said under her breath.

Not hearing her, Max continued. "Thanks, Barbara. I'll check in with you later to see the progress…"

"Uh, Max." Barbara stopped him before he tried to hang up. "Aren't you even going to ask how things are going? You know…with the EMG…."

"Oh, right. How are things going on negotiations with the Darrs?"

Barbara rolled her eyes at the sound in his voice. He was distracted and seemed to only be asking out of politeness. Not to mention the fact that he got the name of the business owner's wrong. If she didn't know Max better, she would say this woman had managed to put a spell on him. "It's the Carrs, Max. And they are going great. In fact, so great that all you have to do is sign the contract. It came in this morning with their signature."

"Great!" Max said, finally tuning in to what Barbara was saying. "Send it to me with the box. Oh, and how's the deal with Parker Industries going? Do we have sole ownership of the gear company yet?"

"Emily Parker called and left you a message. I've got it right…." Barbara explained as she ruffled through some papers. "Ah, here it is. She said to tell you the deal is in the bag at your offering price. She hopes you enjoy your new venture…even if it takes you to EMG."

Max smiled into the phone. Emily Parker always was a sharp one. "She leave any messages for Michael?"

"No. She just said to be careful. New Haven can be a challenging town."

"So I'm discovering…" Max said more to himself than to Barbara. "Alright. Send the details to me on that as well. I want that company in my pocket by tomorrow evening. There's an EMG board meeting I plan on crashing. Oh, what about the purchase on the property?"

"Everything went fine. It's costing you a pretty penny that's for sure. But it's a done deal and I have the papers right here in front of me. I'll send them along with everything else." Barbara stated.

"Great! Things are working out just great." Max commented as the wheels began to turn in his head. "Ok. Anything else?"

"I don't believe so…"

"Good. I'll check in with you later then." Max clicked the off button on his phone as a sly smile spread over this face. Everything was working right according to plan. That is everything except Liz. Then again, he really didn't have a plan with her. How could one plan for an unexpected, thoroughly intriguing, surprise-a-minute enigma like her?

Max put his phone away and turned his attention to the copier. After playing with the buttons for a moment, he found the settings he was looking for to copy the files Liz asked him to. Collated--on. Stapler--on. Double-sided. Good. Everything was set. He grabbed up his first pack and placed it in the paper feeder then set the number of copies to 3, hit the start button and stood back to wait for the job's completion.

As the copier hummed along a satisfied grin came to Max's lips. He crossed his arms in front of him and relaxed against the table. See. That hadn't been so hard. And here Liz had doubted his ability to operate office machinery….

Suddenly, his smile disappeared as a loud banging noise coming from the copier filled the room. The copier began to shake a little and Max jumped to his feet and hovered over it trying to see where the noise was coming from. "What in the world….?"

Before the words were out of his mouth, papers began shooting from the copier output trays in every direction. Max dove for the flying records but they were coming too fast for him to catch. "Damn!" Max exploded as the documents quickly began making a pile of white on the floor.

Max jumped back in front of the copier and started hitting buttons….any buttons…to make it stop. He ran his fingers through his hair in frustration as another sound came from the beastly machine. This time it was a grinding noise. And with the grinding noise came the advent of jammed, crumpled up papers. He tried pulling them out, but they were stuck in the output bin. He couldn't budge them.

That was it! Enough was enough! Max immediately began searching for the off switch. It took him longer than he'd expected as it was hidden in the back of the copier. The grinding noise sounded loudly in his ear as he had to get on his knees to reach all the way around to flip the switch off, all the while papers were jamming in his face.

Max let out a relieved sigh when the clanking of the copier slowly died to a silent calm. Ok. Now to find out what's wrong with this thing. He didn't even think about asking for help. He knew the moment he did he'd never hear the end of it from Liz.

Making a swift inspection of the machine's insides revealed a few loose marbles rolling around inside an empty paper bin, a couple of paper clips stretched out and strategically hooked inside the paper feeder. No wonder the paper was jamming. There was also tape holding down the number of copies buttons so that no matter what number he put in, the copier would automatically translate it to mean 'infinite number of copies'. Obviously these were put there on purpose… Liz. Why, that little sneak...

There was one more obvious problem. The toner cartridge was low and needed to be replaced. That certainly couldn't be the cause of the awful noises. That was probably the marbles' doing, but at least the toner was one thing he knew how to fix.

He removed the unwanted elements from the guts of the copier then glanced around the room. He found a box labeled 'toner' sitting in the corner. Alright. Things were starting to look up. Let's just see how she'd like it when he'd fix the copier and finish the job despite her best efforts to stop him. Max grinned slyly at the thought.

He got the box out and put it on the table to open it. There was only one bottle of toner left. He reached in to grab it out of the box only to have his hand slip from its narrow neck when he tried to pick it up. "Now what?" Max asked out loud as he reached back in and grabbed the bottle with a firmer grip.

He pulled upward again. It didn't budge. "You've got to be kidding me…" Max said in frustration as he put both hands on the bottle and yanked on it…hard. With that one jerk, the top of the bottle soared across the room as the box released its hold on the toner. The bottle itself, along with all of its contents, came flying straight at Max without warning. In the next instant, Max was covered in black toner from the top of his head all the way down the front of his crisp white shirt.

"Dammit!" Max's anger erupted as he tossed the empty bottle back into the box. Just at that moment, the door opened as V and Liz rushed into the room.

V's hands flew to her mouth when she saw Max's eyes, black with rage, blend perfectly with the dark soot on his face as he turn on them. "Oh my goodness! What happened?"

Liz tried as hard as she could to not laugh, but couldn't help herself. Max's irritation, so clearly expressed in the way his hands were firmly planted on his hips and the way his eyes locked with hers in angry accusation sent her into a fit of giggles she simply couldn't control. She was laughing so hard, in fact, that tears were beginning to fall from the corners of her eyes.

"Of all the low-down tricks…." Max began. He was so angry he could barely speak. She wasn't shocked in the least at what had happened to him. She wasn't shocked…because she'd planned it all. Well, he wasn't going to stand around and be made a fool of. In fact, he wasn't going to stay in this one-horse town any longer. No woman was worth it.

He walked around the table, grabbed his suit jacket and headed toward the door stopping briefly when he reached Liz who had managed to stifle her laughter for the moment. He looked down at her, his eyes having turned a heated shade of furious. "Point made and taken. And you're right…I am wasting my time here." With that, he turned and angrily marched down the hall, Liz's muffled laughter ringing in his ears.

When he reached the front door, he threw it open and almost rammed right into Maria. Maria' mouth dropped open when she saw him. "Holy Mackerel! Max? Is that really you under all that stuff?"

"Yes. It's me." Max's anger was not even close to being under control and each word he spoke was clipped and hard.

Maria bit back her laughter realizing it would probably only serve to make him more angry. She stepped in front of him and put her hands on her hips when she saw his attempt to sidestep her. "Uh-huh. You're not leaving till you tell me what she did to you."

Max grunted at her before he ran his hand through his hair in frustration, a motion that only caused black flakes of toner to fall from his tousled hair. He shot a look of disgust at her. "I'll have you know that your little…friend in there is a world-class con-artist….acting all innocent and everything. She sabotaged the copier so it would go wacky on me! Then when I tried to switch out the toner, she rigged it to attack me!"

Maria began to chuckle at his choice of words and Kendall's choice of action. She'd expected fireworks. Obviously, these two weren't going to disappoint her. "Sabotage? Attack? If I didn't know better, I'd say the two of you were in a war."

"We are." Max confirmed his voice low with determination.

"Really? And what's the prize?"

Max looked stunned by her question. "What? What do you mean 'what's the prize?"

"Exactly what I said. In every war there's an aggressor and a defender. Now, since you're on her turf, I'm thinking you're the aggressor, which means there's something you want. So, what is it?"

Max threw his hands up. He'd had just about enough of the women in this town. He couldn't find a single one of them among the lot that wasn't sharp, stubborn, confusing, and who could see through his motives somehow. Was he really that transparent or had he just had the misfortune to land in the world of the most overly-perceptive female population known to mankind?

"Look. For your information, she started this war. I was minding my own business. She's the one who barged into my office and threw a challenge in my face…unnecessarily, I might add." Max threw out in frustration.

"In fact, I'm came here for one reason as far as Kendall is concerned. I came to tell her that her precious center is safe with me. I don't want it. I never wanted it. This was all a mistake. I came to tell her that my brother is the Evans boy she should be aiming her missiles at…not me!"

Max crossed his arms in front of him, anger still pouring from his eyes and into every expression of face and body. "And you know what? I haven't even gotten the chance to do that. Since I showed up here 2 days ago, I've been tricked, manipulated, verbally abused, sabotaged and…and attacked without reprieve. Now you tell me…what 'prize' could I possibly want that would make me go through even an ounce of what that woman has already put me through in less than 48 hours?"

Maria had been closely watching his reaction to her simple question. Yep. Just what she thought. He was hooked. That was the only logical explanation for his continued presence. Especially after all Kendall had put him through so far.

Maria' grin deepened to show the dimples in her cheeks as her blue eyes started to sparkle with a hint of laughter. "Truth? I think you want her. See, my guess is that you are having the time of your life. That Kendall has thrown a challenge in your face that you can't refuse…and you wouldn't even if you could. That the games the two of you are playing with each other excite you in a way you can't deny."

Max ignored the truth of her words as he scoffed in an unconvincing tone of voice and began to absently shake the soot-like toner from his hair. "That's crazy."

"No. What's crazy is letting her win."

Confusion flashed momentarily in Max's eyes when his head snapped up. "Wait a second here. Aren't you supposed to be her best friend?"

"That's me. Best girlfriend in the whole wide world." Maria said with a nod of her head.

Max's eyes narrowed warily. "But I could have sworn that I just heard you encourage me to not let her win. Shouldn't you be on her side?"

"Oh, I am. In fact, if I thought for one moment you were in this to prove some macho point or to win another beautiful trophy to hang on your arm, I'd be the first one rushing you outta town." Maria eyed him carefully before making her next assessment known. "But I don’t think you're like that. At least not this time. Not with Kendall."

She paused and pursed her lips in further contemplation before she shrugged. "Besides, you bring out a side of her I've never seen before. And I have to say it's quite interesting to watch."

Max grunted again before mumbling as he reached for a handkerchief to wipe his face, his anger having cooled considerably. "What? Her conniving, vindictive side?"

Maria chuckled at him. "No. Believe it or not, she's having as much fun as you are…she's just not good at showing it."

Max's eyes darted back to Maria' face. "Fun? This is what she considers fun?" Max stood back and threw his arms out in a wide gesture. "Look at me. I'm a wreck! This suit is ruined and my time has been more than wasted!"

Maria started laughing at his sudden outburst. "I have to admit, she certainly did a number on you. But there's always the next time…unless, of course, you plan on throwing in the towel so early in the game."

Max shook his head in disbelief. "I just don't get it. Why are you so eager for me to play this out?"

Maria shrugged. "Maybe I like seeing my best friend's eyes sparkle like I've never seen before. Or…maybe I'm just curious to see if you can top her latest move. Guess we'll just have to wait and find out." With the latest challenged tossed to Max, Maria winked with a grin and walked past him through the door.

Max stood in stunned silence. Crazy. That's what they were. All of them were just plain crazy. No. What was crazy was that despite everything she'd gone through to get him to leave he'd actually just found the incentive he was looking for to stay. Could it be she really was having as much fun with this as he was? Just the thought made his heart leap in his chest.

Max let out a sigh before he could stop himself. What was he doing? Maybe he was the one who was crazy. He had to be for letting her get to him like this. That and the fact that he was still standing in the middle of a parking lot covered in toner for all the world to see…

Max glanced around then quickly walked to his car. Just as he was about to get in he noticed a white envelope on his windshield. He reached for it and opened it to find a short message written on the note inside. "Dear Wolf: I believe the score is now Home Team 2, Visitors 1. Ready for round 3?"

Max grinned slightly in spite of himself as he glanced back toward the building. "Ready?" Max chuckled. "Ah, Liz. I'm looking forward to it."

Tbc…
posted on 21-Oct-2001 5:47:12 PM
~ chapter 9~

"So, where's Michael tonight?" Liz asked Maria as she plopped down on the couch in the luxurious penthouse suite that Michael and Maria called home.

"Oh, he's up at the Big House in some big secret meeting with Edwin." Maria commented dryly as she handed a box of tapes, CDs and labels to Liz.

Liz started to laugh. "The Big House? The way you make it sound, he's been sent up the river to prison or something."

Maria shook her head. "Sometimes I feel like it, ya know? In fact, with that family, sometimes I feel like I've been dropped into the middle of a loony bin and there's no way to escape." A beautiful dreamy smile came over her face as a sigh escaped her lips. "Then I come home with my Mikey G and everything is just...perfect again."

Liz started laughing. "Maria, although Michael is like a brother to me, there are times I'm completely convinced that you love that guy way too much for his own good." She teased as she picked up the first CD and began labeling it.

Maria sat down with a dismissive wave of her hand and grabbed up a handful of labels herself. "Nah. Everyone deserves to have one person that drives them to distraction and is completely head over heels for them. Michael and I were just lucky enough to have it happen to us at the same time with the right person that's all."

Liz let out a little sigh before chiding herself for allowing her thoughts to drift in Max's direction for the umptinth billion time today. "Too bad it's not that simple for everyone."

Maria eyed Liz carefully as a tiny smile of knowledge hung on her lips. "And sometimes it's not as hard as you make it." Receiving no comment from the suddenly too-busy-to-hear-anything-let-alone-respond Liz, Maria ventured down a road she'd been dying to go since this morning as she leaned over and grabbed her daily planner, her comment appearing distracted. "Speaking of hard. You certainly gave Max a rough way to go this morning."

Liz glanced up sharply. "He deserved everything he got."

"Really." Maria stated as if she didn't believe her when her eyes raised to meet Liz's.

"Yes, really." Liz responded rather defensively.

Maria set her planner aside, leaned forward and pointed a long wildly painted fingernail at Liz. "So you're telling me that he deserved to have three hours of his time wasted, a temperamental copier and a whole load of toner dumped all over him?"

Liz nodded her head decidedly. "That's what I'm saying."

"What was the crime?"

"Invading my space." Liz shot back with a raised eyebrow.

Maria shook her head in disbelief. "Holy Toledo, Kendall! You went to all of that trouble just cuz he was there? Do you have any idea what the poor guy looked like storming out of that door? He was so hot he had steam coming out of his ears!"

"Poor guy? Poor guy??" Liz repeated in astonishment. "Do you have an idea how much that man makes a year? He practically prints his own money."

"I'm not talking about his cash flow, Kendall. He looked really...hurt." Maria fibbed waiting to see what kind of response that would draw from her protesting pal.

"Hurt?" Liz asked incredulously even though her eyes took on a hint of uncertainty. "How can you hurt someone who doesn't have a heart?"

"You sure about that?" Maria countered, quickly picking up on Liz's hesitancy. "Cuz from what I can see, that man definitely has a heart...and every beat is for you." She teased in addition her eyes coming to life with mischief. This was one tease she was going to have a lot of fun pulling off.

Liz shook her head in amazement and a flash of irritation. "Oh. My. God. He's gotten to you too." She got up and started pacing in front of the fireplace talking more to herself than anyone else in the room. "What is it with him and every woman he's met in New Haven? It's like he puts a spell on them or something. Take V for instance. She can't keep her eyes off of him...let alone her hands. She's always touching his arm or grabbing his hand. Or…or gazing up into his eyes."

Floodgates having opened, Liz suddenly turned to Maria and began to ramble on non-stop. "And have you noticed how she hovers every time he's around? It's like she's some hormone-driven teenager or something. It's disgusting. And Rose. She couldn't stop talking about how wonderful and charming he was the other night when I got home. Oh, and sitting with him at the Café' the other day...you should have seen the women staring at him. It was absolutely embarrassing..."

Maria's grin deepened to reveal the tiniest of dimples in her cheeks as she leaned back in her chair and held her hands out with a satisfied sigh. "And there we have it, folks. The green-eyed monster rears its ugly head."

Liz looked up sharply at Maria as her mouth dropped open. "I can't believe...you didn't just..." She was so mad she was having a hard time getting the words out until she finally pointed her finger at Maria and exploded. "You take that back! I am not jealous!"

Maria started laughing at her angry protest. "Come on, Kendall. It's as obvious as the smell coming out of Mrs. Roselli's kitchen every Friday afternoon when I was a kid. The whole neighborhood knew when they smelled that odor in the air Mrs. Roselli was cooking up her famous secret pasta sauce. It's what we called a 'no brainer'." She paused for a second before adding with wiggling eyebrows and a smirk. "Come to think of it...the sauce was almost as hot as you and Max when you get within 10 feet of each other."

Having no good honest come back to counter what Liz knew instinctively was the truth, Liz raised her hands in protest as she tried to control her emotions knowing that Maria would only play each and every outburst for all it was worth. "Stop. Just stop. I can tell this conversation about Max is obviously going no where. Why don't we just concentrate on work, huh?"

She plopped back down on the couch and tried to busy herself while Maria shrugged her shoulders and tried to hold back the chuckle that was bubbling up inside. She wondered exactly how long this little 'work' routine was going to last. True to her guess, it didn't last long.

Liz nervously tucked her hair behind her ears and glanced up at Maria quickly before looking back down at the cds in her hand and venturing quietly. Maria' earlier statement had begun to go to work on Liz's conscience. Big time. "So, you think he was hurt, huh? Like...how bad?

Maria shrugged and looked serious. "What does it matter? You said he doesn't have a heart..."

"He doesn’t." Liz echoed quickly. "I just...I just wondered that's all."

Silence filled the room once more as Maria continued to busily label the cds on her lap. Liz bit her lower lip nervously and her attention span allowed her to label two more cds before she ventured into the ring once more. "So...do you think he was more angry or hurt?"

Maria let out a low whistle. "Wow. Sounds to me like someone's a tad bit sensitive about what she did earlier. Feeling a little guilty maybe?"

"I have nothing to feel guilty about." Liz ran her fingers through her hair before flipping it behind her shoulders. The doubt and irritation in her eyes contradicted the confidence of her words. Seeing Maria' raised eyebrow, Liz continued. "Look Maria, I know you think I went a little too far, but I didn't ok? He came to town looking for a war and I don't intend to let him down."

"What if...by chance...war isn't what he's looking for?"

"What are you talking about?" Liz mumbled as she shifted her gaze back to the cds so that she didn't have to meet Maria's penetrating green eyes.

Maria' eyes began to sparkle with mischief. "As if you didn't know." She started to chuckle at Liz's obvious attempt at obliviousness. "Come on, Kendall. Like I said earlier, it's a no-brainer. Anyone with a pulse can feel the heat rise 50 degrees whenever you two are in a room together. You honestly believe I think you don't feel the sparks between the two of you when you look at each other?" She shook her head. "Nope. Can't say that I do. Remember, I've seen ya together."

"And let me tell you…" She leaned forward to emphasize her point. "We're talking explosions here. Fourth of July fireworks. Volcanic eruptions of seismic proportions. The two of you could probably make the earth move with just one kiss…"

"I haven't the foggiest idea what you mean...." Liz's cheeks began to color as she started looking around her as if she lost something. "Hey, have you seen the inventory list?" She asked the question hoping to divert Maria' attention from the subject that she now realized she should have never attempted to revive.

Explosions. Fireworks. Eruptions. Yep. Definitely described what Liz had been feeling the last few days whenever Max was around. God, she hoped he hadn't noticed too. If he had and if he were even the slightest bit of risk taker that she thought he was…she was in trouble. Big time.

This was not good. Not good at all.

Maria grinned slightly. "It's on your lap." She sat back and watched Liz grab up the paper and flash her a grateful smile. "Boy, he really has you flustered, doesn't he?"

Liz rolled her eyes trying to stifle her rising irritation. "I am *not* flustered. I'm just...I'm just trying to work."

Maria leaned forward. "Did anyone ever tell you what an awful liar you make?"

Liz released a sigh of frustration. "Alright. Since you're obviously not going to drop this why don't we just get it over with, ok?"

"Fine with me." Maria shrugged trying to keep the laughter out of her voice. Watching her try to weasel out of this was going to be good. "Go for it."

Liz leaned forward and began to weave the lie she'd been telling herself since the day she laid eyes on Max. "He's nothing to me. Nothing, that is, except a pest. An irritation. Someone who wants something that I simply won't let him have. He thinks he can waltz in here and take what he wants, and I'm...I'm going to prove him wrong." Liz pointed her finger at Maria for further emphasis. "Now. Can we please get back to work?"

Silence filled the room as Liz quickly bent her head over the inventory list once more trying to give the impression that Max was the furthest thing from her mind.

Unfortunately for Liz, Maria wasn’t convinced. She decided to see just how far Max had gotten to Liz. Watching Liz's reaction carefully out of the corner of her eye Maria remarked seemingly to no one in particular. "I wonder...I wonder what it would be like to kiss him. With those perfect lips, I bet he's an incredible kiss..."

Maria' words immediately brought vivid images to Liz's mind that she'd been fighting since the day she met Max. Anger at herself more than anyone else flashed in Liz's eyes as she looked up sharply cutting off Maria' musings. "Maria Guerin, stop it! You are a married woman! What would Michael say..."

"Oh, I didn't mean for myself..." Maria replied with an easy grin.

Liz rolled her eyes and said in forceful protest. "Well, I definitely wouldn't know. And I certainly don't want to find out..."

Maria couldn't hold back her amusement any more as her eyes started to sparkle. "Keep telling yourself that, Kendall. Maybe one day you'll actually believe it."

Hearing Maria's girlish chuckle was the last straw for Liz. She tossed the inventory list to the side and stood up with her hands on her hips. "Maria Louise Guerin! I’m telling you for the last time...that--that---that person is nothing to me! Nothing except my enemy. You got it? He's a ruthless raider here to steal the center from underneath us. And I will do everything in my power to stop him!"

She stepped over the cd boxes blocking her path to the door and grabbed up her coat. "Where ya going?" Maria called to her trying to keep her laughter in check.

"I can't work like this! There are too many distractions!" Liz replied angrily. "So, I’m going home...and...and call my boyfriend!" The last part was an obvious addition in a last ditch effort to convince Maria that Max had absolutely no hold over her thoughts and feelings. Liz stormed out of the penthouse slamming the door behind her.

Maria sat in shock for a moment before doubling over in laughter at Liz's irritation. She was laughing so hard she almost didn't notice Michael coming through the door with a stunned look on his face. "Maria? What's going on? I just saw Kendall leave here. In fact, she almost ran me over..."

Maria wiped the tears from her eyes. "Oh, babe. She's got it so bad."

"Got what so bad?" Michael asked becoming more confused by the moment.

"You know. IT. love. Lust. Desire. The hots. Whatever you want to call it...she's got it so bad it's killing her."

Michael rolled his eyes. "Please, Maria. Not so soon after a dinner meeting with Grandfather and Sean. How that mega screwup even managed to get Kendall to go out with him in the first place is beyond me. I really don't want to hear about their...uh, 'personal' life." Michael made a face of disgust at the thought of Kendall and his cousin, Sean, even having a 'personal life' together.

Maria shook her head and swiped tears of mirth from her eyes. "No, babe. Sean's not the one she's got the hots for. He is so not in the realm of what she's feeling right now. In fact, I almost feel sorry for him."

Michael's eyebrows furrowed in even deeper confusion. "If it's not Sean, then who are you talking about?"

Maria's smile deepened to reveal the tiny dimples in her cheeks. "The new man in Kendall's life, of course. I believe you've heard of him. His name is Max."
~~~~~
The late evening sun filtered through the windows causing a blinding glare to settle on Max's laptop screen. But Max didn't seem to notice. He was too busy pacing back and forth in front of the table absorbed in thinking about what to enter on the screen to pay attention to the screen itself.

Suddenly, Max stopped and snapped his finger as he turned toward the computer with a wicked grin. "That's perfect!" He was shaking his head and chuckling as he typed his idea into the keyboard. "She is going to die when she sees this!"

A tap on the door stopped his merriment momentarily. "Who is it?" Max called out.

"It's Angel." Came the muffled reply. "I have a package for you."

"Ok. Just a sec." Max typed in the last few letters of the last word then clicked the button to make sure his changes were saved. He went to the door and opened it with a smile. "Hey there, Angel. Come on in."

Angel looked up at him suspiciously as she walked into the room. "You seem to be in an awfully good mood for a man who came home wearing a ton of black stuff all over him. What was that anyway?"

Max started laughing. "That? Oh, that was just someone trying to make a point."

"I see." Angel said as she turned around to face him. "And did they? Make a point that is?"

Max nodded his head. "Oh, yeah. She definitely made her point. The problem is, I'm not very good at taking directions."

"She?" Angel asked with a suggestive look. "In town only a few days and you already have a lady friend, do you?"

"Yeah, right. Just don't tell her that. She thinks we're at war." Max commented wryly.

"War?" Angel asked, immediately having her suspicions confirmed as to his opponent was. "Let me guess…today was her first attack."

"Oh, yeah." Max admitted with a chuckle as he sat down and offered Angel a seat as he took the package and documents from her and put them on the table. "An ambush. And a pretty good one. She caught me by complete surprise."

"And the nature of her attack?"

"Sabotage." Max said without hesitation.

"And the weapons?" Angel asked with a twinkle in her eyes.

"A copier and toner."

Angel held back her laughter. She could just imagine what Liz did to the poor guy. Leave it to her to come up with some hair-brained scheme to teach him a lesson. "That's what was all over you today, wasn't it?"

"Yep. A whole bottle. Rigged to sail through the air at me at just the right moment." Max confirmed with the appropriate hand gestures and a lopsided grin.

Angel started laughing. "I’m sorry. I shouldn't laugh..."

Max shrugged. "Oh, no. That's fine. It is pretty funny...now. Although I have to admit at the time I wasn't too pleased."

"I can imagine." She commented with a chuckle. "So, what was the point she was trying to make?"

"Oh, something silly about how I'm wasting my time with her." Max commented with a dismissive wave of his hand.

"You don't seem to believe her." Angel observed as she eyed him carefully.

Max thought for a moment, unsure of why was telling this virtual stranger all about his relationship with Liz…if that's what you could call it. "It's hard to believe her when she seems to be having so much fun wasting my time. Besides, I get a very strong
feeling that she and I are quite a bit alike. And I know I certainly don't want this challenging...war...to end any time soon."

"She sounds special if she's attracted your attention."

Max grinned with a shrug. "More like holding it hostage, I would say."

"That bad, huh?" Angel asked as her eyes began to twinkle with delight. She knew it! This was the perfect man for Liz! Now, if she could just get Liz to see that...

"So, do you mind telling me this captor's name?"

Max took a deep breath before uttering her name. "Kendall. Kendall Blake. She works at a community…."

"…children's center. I know." Angel finished for him.

"You know her?"

"Pretty well. In fact, she stayed here for a while." Angel divulged information she hadn't expected to. "She's very beautiful."

"Beautiful doesn't begin to describe her. She's…exquisite." The statement escaped his lips in the form of a dreamy sigh before he thought about it and how it would sound to a complete stranger. His face colored slightly as he looked away embarrassed trying to find the next topic of conversation to start.

Having his eyes rest on a painting hung nearby, Max got up and walked toward it, changing subjects deftly. "Speaking of exquisite…is this painting by the same artist as the one I saw in the lobby? They're both breathtaking."

Angel followed him with her eyes. He was a smooth one. The perfect match for her Liz. Even though it still looked like there was a lot of work to do. She cleared her throat as she pulled herself back into the current subject on the table. "Uh, yes, it is."

"So, how's the progress on my little request coming?"

"It isn't." Angel stated plainly.

"What do you mean? Did she refuse?"

"I haven't asked her."

"Why not? Is it more money? Because I can pay…." Max began to reach for his briefcase to pull out his checkbook, but was stopped by Angel's next words.

"Money isn't the problem, Max." Angel came to stand next to him as she gazed at the painting in front of them. "Tell me what you see." Angel commanded indicating the picture.

Max tilted his head to the side for a moment analyzing the painting before him. It was of a meadow with a sparkling stream flowing through the middle of it and a dark forest bordering it on one side. "I see a meadow full of flowers with a stream in the middle."

"And?" Angel prompted.

"A dark forest to the side."

"Anything else? In the forest perhaps?"

Max looked at the painting more closely. His eyes widened in surprise. He'd studied this painting several times before. How could he have missed that? Having noticed the one lone flower off to the side just on the edge of the woods, Max nodded as the feeling of
the painting began to come over him much like the one in the lobby had the other day. "Yeah. Yeah, I see a flower. Right here on the edge of the forest. It's half hidden by the darkening shadows surrounding it. In fact, it's leaning into the shadows away from the
sun. As if it's too afraid to enter the sunshine and be seen."

"Very much like the artist." Angel commented as she tried to fill in the blanks for Max.

A look of understanding began to shine in Max's eyes as he whispered, "Amazing." Suddenly he turned to Angel with a grin. "You realize that this only makes me want to meet her more, don't you?"

Angel tilted her head to the side wanting to understand where this intense curiosity of his was coming from. "Why?"

Max shrugged. "Who knows? Maybe I'm the only one who can teach her that flowers who hide from the sun only wilt and die."

Angel shook her head amused by his confidence and his lack of horticultural knowledge. "Not all flowers flourish in sunshine, Max. In fact, some actually thrive better in shade."

Max glanced back at the painting and gently touched the flower with his finger as he commented softly. "Not this one."

Angel watched him carefully. The more she saw the more she liked him. And the more certain she became that this was the perfect match for Liz. It was amazing how he was able to look at her paintings and see beyond the beautiful colors to the pain and loneliness and fear deep inside. Or how instead of the flower on the canvass in front of him, he read the soul of the artist that created it. Maybe he was right. Maybe he was the only one who could bring Liz out of her self-inflicted darkness into the happiness that she deserved. "What makes you so sure?"

Max pulled his gaze from the painting and thoughtfully turned to Angel. "You've already said she hasn't painted in years. I'm wondering if it is less because of that lost inspiration you've mentioned and more because of her fear. Or maybe the reason her
inspiration is gone is because she's hiding not only from the world, but from herself as well. Whatever the reason, this is one flower who needs to experience the warmth of sunshine to grow."

"And let me guess. You believe you're that sunshine."

Max shrugged his shoulders. "You know her. You tell me."

Angel's eyes began to twinkle. "Maybe you're right."

Max grinned. "So does that mean you're going to give me the chance to tell her that in person?"

Angel started laughing. "You don't give up easily, do you?"

"Not when it's something I really want. And I really want to meet her."

Perfect. Just what Liz needed--someone who wouldn't walk away at the first sign of opposition. Unable to budge on this one point Angel offered an alternative couched in the words of defeat. "Then meet her you shall."

Max's victorious smile broadened as he clasped his hands together. "Great! When and where?"

"When? Whenever you like. As to where. Well, I'll personally take you to her."

Max's eyes began to glow with excitement. "How about now? There's no time like the present…" Just then a beep sounding from his laptop grabbed his attention. He held up his finger and headed for the machine, "Just one second…"

Max clicked on an incoming email and groaned. "Great. Just great." He turned to face Angel with an apologetic look on his face. "I'm sorry. Something just came up. Can I have a rain-check?"

"No problem. Whenever you're ready just let me know." Angel headed for the door and stopped. "Just one question if you don't mind. About Kendall…what do you plan to do? I mean, you mentioned not following direction very well. It sounded as if maybe you had some kind of plan or something…."

Max's mischievous grin returned to his face in full strength. "Oh, I do. Believe me, she isn't going to know what hit her come tomorrow morning."

"Really?" Angel asked mischief now beginning to show in her own eyes. "Do you need any help?"

Max started to chuckle. "But I thought you liked her."

"Oh, I do." Angel agreed readily.

"You do realize this will be treated as a war, don't you?" Max said in mock seriousness that was betrayed by the amusing glint in his eyes and the way he stuck his hands in his pockets with a boyish nonchalance. "Take no prisoners and all that..."

"Yeah, I kinda got that impression."

"Then why are you so eager to help me retaliate?"

Angel shrugged her shoulders. "Maybe I want to see if you can match her."

Max crossed his arms in front of him and gave Angel a confident smile. "Oh, don't worry. Not only can I match her, I intend to top her every move."

Angel grinned slightly. "Then this is a battle I definitely want front row seat for. So what do you say? Do I get to help?"

Max shook his head as he began to laugh at her eagerness. "Alright. You can help." He reached over and picked up the gift wrapped package and headed for the table where he pulled out an envelope from out of his briefcase. Placing the note on top of the package, he handed it to Angel and explained, "I have a very strong feeling that some time tomorrow morning, Kendall will come looking for me, but you'll make sure I won't be found. Instead, she'll find this."

"You’re mission…" Max lowered his voice to mock the now famous line. "…should you choose to accept it…" Max winked at Angel with a grin. "…will be to make sure she reads the card after she opens the package. Not before. That's very important, ok? Oh, and she probably won't want to accept it once she's opened it. So, if you can convince her otherwise, I'd be forever in your debt."

Angel leaned forward and whispered conspiratorially. "What is it?"

Max shrugged with a cute boyish grin on his face that let Angel know her curiosity would just have to wait to be fulfilled.

Angel rolled her eyes as she teased. "Awww, you're no fun." She headed for the door as Max began to chuckle. "So, is that all I have to do? Make sure she opens the gift first, then the card."

Max nodded. "That's all. Then sit back and watch the fireworks."

"Oh, believe me, I will. I'm actually looking forward to it." Angel commented with a wave of her hand as she opened the door and walked through it closing it behind her.

"Me too, Angel. Me too." Max said with a chuckle that filled the empty room. Max's smile faded quickly when he heard a second beep coming from his laptop. He let out a deep sigh. "Alright. Alright. I hear you." Max walked over to the table, sat down and said out Loud, "Ok. Now to find out what Michael is up to."
~~~~~~~~~
"So, whaddya say, laddie? Will ye pass the word on to yer brother and get him to agree?"

Kyle Evans leaned forward as far as he could in the chair he was tied to. "Not on your stinking Irish life."

Kyle's head snapped to the side with the hard blow. He straightened and looked back at his captor with cold blue eyes. "You can beat me till I'm black and blue. Hell, you can string me up by my toenails and leave me to die. Max would probably thank you for it since it would save him the trouble. But it's not going to get you what you want. Only one thing will do that." Kyle swallowed back the lump of bile that rose in his throat at the thought of what he was about to offer. But at least it was better than Max getting mixed up in this. "I'll do it instead."

A mixture of laughter and chuckles rang through the room until one voice broke through the merriment to address Kyle. "Good form of you to appeal to our Irish sense of humor." The man stepped into the light shining down on Kyle. His scruffy beard and tousled hair told a story of late nights and continuous activity. "Unfortunately, Mr. Evans, when it comes to our mission, it is no laughing matter. Which is precisely why we want your brother. He is the best…"

"He was the best." Kyle spat back tersely. "Or haven't you heard? Max hasn't done this kind of job in years."

Colin Malone shrugged his thin shoulders. "Doesn't matter. It's like riding a bike. He'll remember everything once an AK-47 is placed in his hands."

Kyle swallowed hard. That's what I'm afraid of… Changing tactics, Kyle shook his head slowly. "He won't do it. There isn't enough money in the world to make him do this for you. No threat serious enough to make him cave into pressure…"

A quirk of smile touched Colin's lips. "We'll see." His eyes raised to a person standing behind Kyle. With a small nod, a silent command was given.

And Kyle's world went black…
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Instead of going home like she said, Liz opted instead to take a stroll down by the docks. It was a clear, crisp night. The perfect night to clear the cobwebs out of her head and make plans.

About Max.

She honestly had no idea what he was doing to her. Every time he came around she felt…powerless and yet fearless. Restless, but content. Confused and at the same time more sure of herself. Completely at his frustrating mercy and having more fun than she had in ages.

She was feeling too much. Too soon. Too many emotions all at once.

And she didn't like it one bit.

Well, ok. So…maybe she did like the fire that coursed through her when his fingers brushed against her skin. Or when that arrogant half smile of his made her knees go weak. How her heart literally stopped beating when she felt his breath against her lips as he'd lean in to whisper. And the way his chocolate eyes looked into hers with such intensity…such depth. As if he had some secret knowledge about her. A knowledge that made him reach for the reckless, fearless girl she'd lost long ago. And he was finding her somehow…

Which had to stop.

Too much was at stake to let this thing with Max go on too much longer. Too many lives…

A groan of pain stopped Liz's thoughts mid-sentence. She spun around and narrowed her eyes looking into the shadows along the docks' stairs and walkways. "Hello? Is somebody there?"

A scraping sound and another groan. Liz immediately took up a defensive stance and inched her way toward the sound cautiously. "If someone's there say something…" There was another grunt of pain as Liz turned a corner to be greeted with a sight that made her gut wretch.

"Oh my God." Liz immediately dropped to the fallen man's side and began to take assessment of his injuries. His face was bloody from a beating and would be black and blue in no time. There was blood coming from the back of his head and the way he clutched his chest, she could only guess that he had more than a few broken ribs.

Pulling out her cell phone, Liz immediately began to punch in 911 when a hand shot up and pulled the phone from her grip. "No…please." His voice was thick with pain. "No doctors. No police."

"But you're hurt…"

His blue eyes opened to plead with hers. "Please." Wincing in pain as he shook his head, his voice shook with determination. "Please…very important. Lives depend on it…"

Liz swallowed hard as a moment of indecision hung in the air, her gaze sweeping over his prostrate body and the condition he was in. When her eyes finally made it back to his face and her gaze met his, she was powerless to deny him. For she saw herself the way she once was…the way she some day may be…reflected in his eyes. Nodding her head once she slipped her phone from his hand and stuffed it back in her purse.

Kneeling by his side, Liz helped him struggle into a sitting position. "Ok. Here's what we're going to do. My car is just around the corner. If you can make it that far, I have a cottage…very secluded. No one will bother you there. We'll get you patched up and then…"

A bloody hand covered hers as blue eyes met brown. "What's…your name?"

"Liz." The name sprang from her lips without hesitation.

"I'm…Kyle." A small smile made it to his face as his eyes closed in pain. "So…what's a nice girl…like you…doing in a place…like this?"

A chuckle escaped Liz when she heard the all too familiar pick up line and Kyle's smile widened in response as his eyes slowly opened with a teasing twinkle. "Although you're certainly no prize, I can't imagine you being *this* hard up for a date." She shook her head at him and rolled her eyes when he attempted a chuckle. She sobered suddenly when his chuckle turned into a cough and Kyle winced in pain again. "Come on…let's get you out of here before I end your misery and toss you in the river instead..."

Once on his feet, Kyle wrapped an arm around Liz's shoulder and leaned into her for support as they slowly made their way off the docks unaware of a pair of green eyes watching intently from a darkened phone booth across the street…

A phone rang and was answered. "Yeah. It's me. The luck o' the Irish is shinin' on us tonight. Aye. A girl came to his rescue. If I'm not mistaken…it's the same one Max has been makin' inquiries about." He nodded his copper head. "Yeah…I think callin' Duke is a great idea. He'll find out what makes Max Evans tick. Once he does, Max will be puddy in our hands…"


Tbc…
posted on 21-Oct-2001 5:49:29 PM
~ chapter 10~


A warm, soft hand was the first sensation Kyle remembered. It was gently brushing back the hair from his forehead only seconds before a moist cloth carefully followed then ran cautiously first down one cheek, then the other.

Kyle's eyes fluttered open. The world around him was hazy and bright. Then a shadow fell and Kyle's eyes began to focus on long dark hair surrounding a fuzzy face. If he could just focus on the face, he knew she'd be beautiful. He knew he'd know her…

"McKenna?" The whisper was hoarse as his hand reached out to touch the vision.

Liz shook her head slowly and attempted a smile as she took Kyle's hand and returned it gently to his side. "No. It's Liz. Remember? You were beaten up pretty badly and…"

Kyle swallowed and attempted to wet his parched lips. "Liz. Right. I…I remember." He blinked to clear the cobwebs from both his eyes and his mind and attempted to sit up. "Oww…" Kyle fell back heavily against the couch and grabbed his chest.

"Um…I wouldn't try to sit if I were you." A hint of amusement laced Liz's voice. "From what I could tell we're dealing with three broken ribs, a possible concussion and a face only a mother could love."

Kyle started to chuckle then winced with pain instead. "Gee, thanks."

Liz grinned. "Sure." She got up from her perch on the side of the couch and tossed the washrag into a nearby bowl full of water. "I thought you'd be out of it a little longer. Give me a sec and I'll get something for you to drink…"

Letting out a weary sigh, Kyle took the opportunity to take in what he could of his surroundings. The high ceiling to his right sported a chimney for the cobblestone fireplace beneath it. There were wide windows on both sides of the chimney, heavily curtained with floral drapery in colors that complimented the cozy plaid chairs flanking the hearth making a quaint, charming sitting area. The perfect picture of a secluded little cottage. A lover's getaway. An inspirational retreat. A secret hiding place.

Kyle's thoughts instantly turned to his attractive rescuer and who she really was just as he heard her voice behind him. "Alright, here we go. Now, I'm not even going to tell you what exactly is in this because I can guarantee you'd refuse to drink it…" She carefully slipped onto the couch again and put the glass of creamy gray substance on the table next to her. "…but its definitely the cure for what ails you. Here let me help you sit up a bit…"

Once Kyle was in a semi-sitting position, Liz turned and reached for the glass. She held it out to him with a forced, bright smile that turned into a chuckle when she saw Kyle's face scrunch up with disgust. "What the hell is that thing?"

"Your magical cure." She rolled her eyes at his raised eyebrow. "Trust me. It works." Liz helped a grimacing Kyle drink a few sips then helped him lean back against the pillows as Kyle eyed her carefully.

"Why are you helping me?" The sudden question pulled all amusement from Liz's expression as she replaced the glass on the table.

She paused a moment contemplating her words before turning back to him with a brief smile. "Because someone helped me once when I needed it. Now it's my turn to do the same." Shrugging her shoulders, Liz reached to the back of the couch and pulled down a blanket to spread over Kyle. "Besides you said lives depended on it. I believed you."

Kyle swallowed hard and nodded his head as his gaze became unfocused and took on a distant look. "They do. My brothe…"

"I don't want to know." Liz's voice was hard and distant as she interrupted Kyle. When their eyes met, the same distance had taken up residence in their inky blackness. "Look, when I told you this was a secluded cottage and that no one would find you here, I meant it. What I didn't say was that there's a reason for that." Liz pushed a few loose strands of hair behind her ear. "So, here's the deal. I won't ask and you won't tell. Whatever you're in to, whatever is going on…I don't want to know. Anything."

"And I expect the same courtesy. My guess is that you'll be here for a few days at least. So as not to arouse suspicions with…whoever…I'll go about my business as usual and check on you periodically. I'll set up everything you'll need before I go tomorrow morning..."

"Look, I don't want to cause problems…" Kyle took a deep breath and started to move. "Maybe it's better if I just…"

"Men. They're such macho idiots." Another chuckle escaped Liz as she gently pushed Kyle back onto the couch. "You'd never make it to the door, Superman. Besides, you'd be completely lost once you got outside." She let out a resigned sigh as her eyes met Kyle's, the distance and hardness gone. "You can stay as long as you need to. Just…don't be curious, ok? It won't be good for your health….which is what we're concerned about here."

Liz stood and glanced around to make sure everything was in place for her visitor. "Ok. I think that's all for now. We can talk later. If you need me just yell…"

Kyle reached up and grabbed Liz's arm. "Liz. I don't know how to thank…"

Liz gently pulled Kyle's fingers away, her hand holding his for a moment. "Just…get better. And…" Her narrowed with curiosity as a feeling of familiarity washed over her.

There was a six-pointed star tatoo on the base of Kyle's wrist.

Kyle instantly noticed her failed speech and the direction of her gaze. He pulled his hand away from hers and tucked it safely, if not smoothly, under the blanket as he finished her sentence adding a meaning of his own. "And don't ask questions."

Liz's eyes snapped up to meet his. One slow nod of her head. "Right. No questions." Gracing him with a warm smile, Liz nodded once again. "Good night, Kyle."

"Night, Liz…"

The lights went out and Kyle's mind began to whirl…
~~~~~~~~~~~~
Liz lay awake staring up at the ceiling in her room at the cottage as she let out a heavy sigh. "This is ridiculous." She said out loud in frustration, letting out yet another sigh before glancing at the clock by her bed. Here it was 3:30 in the morning and she couldn't sleep...again.

And it had absolutely nothing to do with the stranger sleeping just a floor below her on her couch. For some reason, she felt safe with him. Maybe it was the condition she'd found him in. Maybe it was the Beretta she kept loaded in her nightstand drawer. Or even the fact she was an excellent shot. Whatever the reason, his presence only caused a faint hum of concern in the back of her mind. Especially compared to the wailing sirens screaming at her from every direction whenever she thought of her other problem…

She let out another sigh as amber eyes flashed before her mind and a wicked, wolfish smile taunted her from the darkness. Why was it her sleeping habits had changed dramatically since that first meeting with Max Evans? Was she not staying busy enough during the day that sleep at night was a welcome release to her? Or did she simply have too much on her mind? So much so that it wouldn't let her body get the rest needed to make it through the next day? Or…was it because every time she closed her eyes she saw Max's face before her?

Maria's words came back to haunt her. "He looked really hurt….Feeling a bit guilty maybe?" Dammit. Maria was right. She was feeling guilty. And a little worried. He was so angry when he left. What if it actually worked? What if he really had decided that his time was being wasted in New Haven and he packed up his bags and left? Not that she wanted him to stay or anything. No. That wasn't the case at all.

But wouldn't it be better for the center if he was close by where she could keep a close eye on him? Just for information purposes, of course.

She snapped her fingers as a solution came to her. She'd apologize. Not because she was really sorry, but because she wanted to make him believe she was sorry. That way he might give her a second chance and stick around. After all, it was better to have the enemy close by and able to be observed than far away and hatching schemes that would come back to haunt her. Right?

Right.

So, she finally had a plan. First thing tomorrow when she saw him, she'd apologize and make nice so he'd stick around longer. It was the least she could do…for the center…
~~~~~~~~~
By the time Liz made it to the center the next day, the morning was already in full swing. First, she'd gotten up late. But what was new about that? It was becoming a habit with her lately…ever since she'd met Max it seemed.

Then she'd had to check on her patient. Kyle was just waking up when Liz breezed down the stairs. After helping him stand and shuffle his way to the downstairs bathroom, Liz ushered him back to the couch where she had set up entertainment of every kind. Books, tv, music. She even tossed him a phone as a reward for drinking an entire glass of her awful concoction…her magic cure.

With a teasing "See ya tonight, dear" from Kyle, Liz flew out the door in a rush. Then when she'd finally made it to the highway, traffic had been awful. Not to mention the major traffic jam she ran into about a block from the Center.

Apparently there were cars parked all along both sides of the street as well as other vehicles trying to find parking places making it hard for traffic to flow smoothly. "Wonder what's going on." Liz said to herself out loud as she was stalled in one place for three minutes. She would have called V on her cell to apprise her of the situation, but she'd inadvertently left it on her kitchen counter.

Fifteen minutes later when she finally managed to reach the entrance for the Center her mouth dropped open as she let out a gasp. "What in the world?" The parking lot was full. Not one space was available…and several people were double- parked. There was a line outside the door for what seemed like miles. Her mind quickly scanned the Center's calendar to make sure she hadn't forgotten a special event. No, they didn't have any public activities planned. So, what could be going on?

Liz drove toward the back entrance and found a space that just been vacated. She jumped out, locked the car and hurried quickly to the back door of the building. Inside there was a flurry of activity. Every available person was running up and down the hallway and bumping in to each other as general mayhem seemed to have erupted.

Liz saw one of the volunteers leading a group of strangers down the hall. As she turned the corner to head for her office, V came running around the opposite direction with her head down paying more attention to the piece of paper in her hand than to where she was going. It was no surprise then that she rammed right into Liz almost sending both of them to the floor.

"Oh, gosh! Kendall, I'm so sorry." V exclaimed as she righted herself and held onto Liz for support. "Oh! Wait! Kendall! You're here! Boy, am I glad to see you! You have no idea what kind of mess you've created. Claire is about ready to blow a gasket. You know you really should have warned us…"

Liz grabbed V by the arm to silence her. "V. Hold it a sec. What are you talking about? What's going on?"

"That's what I'd like to know." Claire said as she came up beside Liz a stern look written all over her face. "The next time you decide to do something like this I would at least appreciate a warning."

Liz shook her head. "Claire, I don't know what you're talking about. Do something like what?" At Claire's silence, she looked back and forth between Claire and V her frustration level beginning to mount. "WHAT?"

"Oh, there you are, Kendall. Wow. It's about time ya got here. Now you can help us out with the tours." Maria suggested as she came and joined the group looking down at the clipboard in her hand. "You know, if I knew you were this good at promoting things, I would have put ya in charge of MLK promotions a long time ago. You can't even imagine the turn out this has brought."

Liz was becoming more and more confused by the second. And her face showed it. Along with all of the frustration that was quickly building up inside. Everywhere she looked were strangers milling about and the people she did know were standing in front of her either angry at her, impressed with her or just plain relieved that she was there. Enough was enough! She put her hands on her hips and finally yelled above the noise. "WOULD SOMEBODY PLEASE TELL ME WHAT'S GOING ON???"

Sean walked up just as Liz finished her question and posed one of his own. "Hey, Kendall. Why didn't you tell me you wanted to go into business for yourself?"

Liz let out a yell that surprised everyone in the circle that had formed around her. No one had ever seen her that flustered or out of control before. Maria bit back a chuckle as she and Claire locked eyes. Claire looked away before she started to laugh as well. "That's it! I want someone to explain to me what exactly is going on. ONE at a time. V? You start."

"Well, I've been getting phone calls all day. Actually the phone has been ringing off the hook for your services. I guess everyone's trying to be the first 100 customers. Oh, and then we have the people who have just showed up. We've been trying to organize them in tour groups. Since you promised and all."

"My services? Customers? Tour groups?" Liz took a deep breath and realized she wouldn't get too much clear information from V so she turned to her next best source.

"I have to agree with Maria, it was a brilliant plan getting people to visit using a gimmick like that. I just really wish you'd discussed it with me first. We would have been better prepared." Claire commented as Liz turned a desperate gaze on her.

Liz ran her fingers through her hair in complete frustration as she slumped against the wall. "Better prepared for WHAT?"

"Oh, come on Kendall. As if ya didn't know." Maria egged her on. Glancing around the rest of the group she added, "Look at her trying not to take the credit. Don't ya just love her?"

"I know I do." Sean interjected causing Maria to roll her hazel eyes and making Liz want the floor to open up and swallow her right then and there. Why did he have to get that tone in his voice? That syrupy, 'I'm-so-in-love-I-can't-hide-it' tone. Especially at a time like this?

"Ok. Back on the subject." Liz said as she looked at each of them in desperation. "Guys. I'm serious. I don’t know what you're talking about."

Sean piped up. "Well, we're talking about your flyer in today's paper. You know…the ad you placed."

"But, I didn't place any ads." Liz contradicted.

"Well, someone did. I've got one right here." Sean pulled out a hot pink flyer and handed it to her.

Liz's mouth dropped open as she quickly scanned the page.



2:ALL
Business Owners

Do you get tired of wrestling with that temperamental copier?
Bring it to an expert




Kendall Blake
842 River Street

Take a tour while you wait. The first 100 customers will receive $500 each. Offer lasts one day only.

Distributed by Wolf Enterprises







[ edited 1 time(s), last at 21-Oct-2001 5:52:59 PM ]
posted on 21-Oct-2001 5:55:55 PM
Liz's face turned from ashen white to red hot the instant she read 'Wolf Enterprises'. "Why that lousy, low-life, bottom-feeding scumbag!" The flyer in her hand was shaking uncontrollably, evidence that her anger was dangerously close to exploding. "And to think I was going to apologize…." She took a deep, shaky breath as the fire of determination flashed in her eyes. "Well, he's not going to get away with it."

"He who?" Sean interjected. "Kendall?"

Liz angrily brushed past V and Sean and headed for the back door oblivious to any protests or questions from her friends. She was a woman on a mission…and no one was going to stop her.

Maria and Claire looked at each other and burst into laughter when they heard the door slam behind her. "I don't know about you, but I kinda feel sorry for the guy." Maria said between gasps as she and Claire started walking toward Claire's office.

Claire shook her head as her laughter calmed. "Something tells me he's well up to the challenge. Come on. We have a crowd to control."

"Guy? What guy?" Sean asked suddenly feeling a twinge of apprehension run through him as he heard their departing words. Taking a few steps and calling after them he asked once again. "Hey guys? Who are you talking about?"
~~~~~~~~~
Max was having a somewhat restful morning back at his cottage at the B&B. He'd had a leisurely breakfast, had already gone over stock quotes and had called in his most recent corporate takeover. All in all, this morning had turned out to be a very peaceful, profitable morning.

He glanced down at his watch. It was almost 10:00. She should be here by now. Max was becoming restless not having seen hide nor hair of Liz this morning. He was sure she would come rushing over as soon as she got to the Center. A wicked smile spread over his face. He was glad he'd talked to Claire before completing his scheme. Her endorsement of his plan put the icing on the cake. Not to mention the donations they were sure to receive once the people took a tour and saw the Center's needs.

Max let out a satisfied sigh. Yes, all in all, this was one plan that was going to be hard to beat. That is if she would hurry up and get here. Maybe he should go for a walk. That should take up some of his time.

Max headed out to the garden and began walking the many paths that wove in and out among the bushes and trees. He heard the birds chirping in the air and was taken with their song. So much so that he failed to notice the small roller blades in the middle of his path until it was too late.

Max let out a yell as his foot tripped over one of them throwing him off balance and causing him to land with a thud on the ground. "Ow." He said rather calmly for a man who'd just been attacked by a pair of roller blades. He examined the wound on his knee where he landed. It had already started to bleed. "Just great." Max said as he noticed the rip in his new pants in addition to the cut.

Before he got a chance to move he was accosted by the same dark haired, dark eyed sprite that he'd met in the chapel. The one he knew by the name of Garden Princess. "Oh, Mr. Prince Charming! I'm so sarcy! I shoulda not had my skates left out!"

A brilliant smile spread across Max's face. "Hey, Princess. How are you? Wait a minute. What are you doing here?" Part of Max had walked away from the chapel the night he met her feeling as if she hadn't been real. He believed that she might have just been an apparition or a wood sprite that had floated into his life to show him the beauty of the painted secret garden. Although he'd promised to come back, he doubted he'd ever see her again when he did. What would be the chances of something like that happening twice? Perhaps only on a full moon shortly after sunset.

And he certainly hadn't thought he'd see her so close to his lodgings. But here she was. Dressed in every day play clothes with her hair up in pony tails and fretting over misplaced roller blades. His little enchanting Princess of the other evening was gone and in her place stood a beautiful flesh and blood little girl. For some reason, knowing she was real and that she remembered him sent a warmth flooding through him. For the second time in his life, he found himself completely unafraid and instantly drawn to the small child before him.

She stood back from him as if she were afraid to approach him. Ignoring his questions she stated what was so obvious to her if not to anyone else. "Grandnanny's gonna be mad."

Max's smile disappeared when he saw the fear in her eyes. "Mad? Why?"

"Cuz she told me to put my skates away last night. And I forgot. Now you've got a boo-boo."

Max leaned forward and grinned. "Then we just won't tell her, will we?"

The beginning of a smile began to tug at the corner of her mouth. "But…you still got a boo-boo."

Max dismissed her concern with a wave of his hand. "Awww, this is nothing. It's just a little scratch."

"But you're bleeding." She said with concern as she inched her way closer to him. Suddenly her eyes came alive with an idea. "Oh, I know! Stay there! I'll be right back! 'Kay?" She took off running in the opposite direction, her ponytails flying behind her.

Max chuckled softly as he watched her. I wonder who she is. And who she belongs to. And who is this grandnanny she keeps talking about? All of the questions began to race through Max's mind just as he saw her running back toward him holding something brown and furry in her arms.

She stopped to catch her breath when she reached him and turned the object in her hands around so it was facing Max. Then she held it out at arms length as if presenting it to him. "This is Boo-boo Bear."

Max grinned as he took the tattered brown bear from her small hands and held it in front of him. "Hi, there, Boo-boo Bear. It's nice to meet you." He said to the bear as he shook hands with it's tiny paw sending the little girl into a fit of laughter.

She knelt down next to Max and started to explain. "See, you can hold Boo-boo Bear while I fix you up. That way it won't hurt as much."

"Oh, I see." Max responded. "But what are you going to fix me up with?"

Princess dove into a side pocket on Boo-boo Bear's vest and pulled out an array of band-aides. "You can have Mickey. Or Goofy. Or even if you want you can get Looney Tunes."

Max started to laugh at her childish exuberance. "Well, I always kinda liked Wile E. Coyote. Do you have him in there?"

Princess shook her shiny dark head as a disappointed frown covered her rosebud lips. "Nope. I'm sarcy." Then she suddenly brightened. "But I do have Road Runner. Ya want him?"

Max shrugged. "Sure. Why not."

"Ok. Now make sure you hold Boo-boo bear real tight, kay? That way it won't hurt as much." She said as she pulled out a band-aid and began to haphazardly apply it to Max's wound covering only half of the area that had been hit. She leaned down and kissed it gently then looked up at him with a proud grin. "There. All better now."

Max nodded in agreement. "It sure is. Thank you so much. You're about the best boo-boo healer I've ever seen." He added as he handed her bear back to her. "And thank you for letting me hold Boo-boo bear. Is he your favorite?"

"Uh-huh." She said as she hugged her bear to her. "He keeps me comp'ny when my heart feels sad."

"He does, huh?" Max asked as he eyed her carefully. "Does your heart feel sad a lot?"

Princess shrugged her tiny shoulders. "Sometimes. When I'm all alone and I miss my mommy."

"So, I know you said she's out fighting the evil wizard, but have you ever seen your mommy?" Max asked his question quietly after a moment's silence when he saw the far away look in Princess' dark eyes.

She shook her tiny head. "No." She looked up at him and bit her lower lip nervously as if she were contemplating whether to tell him something or not. She must have decided it was safe to trust him because she leaned forward and whispered. "Can ya keep a secret?"

Max nodded his head solemnly. "I sure can. Do you have one you want to tell me?"

Princess nodded and leaned closer. "Every night I wish on the stars for my mommy to come and love me. And you know what?" Her voice lowered to the barest whisper. "I even know who she is."

"You do?"

"Uh-huh." Her long dark ponytails bounced with enthusiasm. "I just know it has to be her cuz she so bootiful and cuz she loves me very very much. She even told me so…"

Her thoughts were interrupted when she heard the sound of a car pulling into the parking lot. Something about the car caused her eyes to sparkle with delight. She got up and jumped up and down in her excitement. "There she is! I gotta go!" And with that she took off down the path toward the house faster than Max could blink.

"But, I still don't know your name..." Max called after her. "Princess….you left your skates…." His reminder faded into the air as the little girl disappeared around the corner. Max shook his head with a laugh then picked up her roller blades and threw them over his shoulder as an idea came to him. He changed directions and headed toward the house following the path his little Princess had taken.

Maybe, just maybe he'd get a chance to find out more about her…

He took two steps and stopped short with a groan when his cell phone began to ring. Pulling it from his pocket, Max clicked it on. "Max here."

"Max."

"Kyle? Just where the hell have you been?" Max's voice hardened and his lips tightened into a thin line.

Ignoring Max's demanding question, Kyle immediately got to the root of his call. "We've got a problem, bro."

"Correction. You have a problem. And that problem is me the next time I lay eyes on you. Do you have any idea the kind of crap your latest stunt with…"

"Max! Shut. Up." Kyle's voice exploded through the cell phone and Max's eyes immediately widened in surprise. Then his brow furrowed in immediate concern.

Being the wayward, reckless Evans brother Kyle wasn't one to loose his cool. Which caused Max's stomach to instinctively tie into knots when he did. "What's going on?"

Kyle released a light sigh of relief that he'd managed to somehow get through to Max when he heard the serious turn of Max's voice. "No details. Just do what I say." Kyle swallowed hard and squeezed his eyes shut not sure of what response he would receive. "Max…get the hell out of New Haven. And whatever you do…do it tonight…"

Tbc…
posted on 21-Oct-2001 5:57:38 PM
~ chapter 11~

Being the wayward, reckless Evans brother Kyle wasn't one to loose his cool. Which caused Max's stomach to instinctively tie into knots when he did. "What's going on?"

Kyle released a light sigh of relief that he'd managed to somehow get through to Max when he heard the serious turn of Max's voice. "No details. Just do what I say." Kyle swallowed hard and squeezed his eyes shut not sure of what response he would receive. "Max…get the hell out of New Haven. And whatever you do…do it tonight…"

"Have you lost your freakin' mind?" Had Kyle been able to see Max at that moment, he probably would have felt the affects of Max's infamous right hook. Max's jaws had tightened in anger and his eyes flared with fury as the grip around his phone tightened till his knuckles were white. Truth be known, his over-reaction had more to do with the sudden, instinctive fear racing through him than anything else. "What in hell makes you think I'm going to just up and leave a place because you want me to? No details…no explanations…"

Max exhaled a loud sigh as he attempted to bring his anger under control, trying to pray away the growing knot of dread in his stomach. "Alright, spill it. Which CEO's wife did you screw? Or was it a daughter this time? Give me the name. I'll call and smooth it over. Maybe sacrifice another corporation for your idiotic…"

Ignoring Max's insinuations, Kyle tried to keep his voice level knowing it would be critical to Max's agreement on this particular issue. "Does 'Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star' mean anything to you, Max?"

Dead silence followed.

"Max?"

Max's eyes squeezed shut and his barely breathed expletive was only a whisper into the phone as he pinched the bridge of his nose with his thumb and forefinger. "Holy sh*t."

"Nothing holy about it, bro. You know that as well as I do." Kyle commented glibly.

Head beginning to shake, Max swallowed hard. "I'm not apart of this any more, Kyle. You know that…"

"Yes, I do." Kyle agreed readily. "Unfortunately, a few of our international friends haven't heard the news yet."

"Who?" Max's eyes snapped open.

"You don't want to know."

Something in Kyle's tone told Max much more than Kyle had intended. "Where are you? I'll come meet you or…or send a jet…"

"Max, you can't." On his end of the line, Kyle glanced around him at the comfortable cottage he was holed up in. As hideouts go, this one wasn't bad. In fact, Kyle had hit the jackpot this time. "I…I don't really know where I am."

Panic gripped Max's heart as his mind immediately dreamed up all types of horrible scenarios as to where Kyle could be. "What do you mean you don't know?"

"I. Don't. Know." Kyle emphasized each word hoping that alone would stop Max's insistent questioning. Somehow, he knew it wouldn't be that simple. "Look, don't worry. I'm…good."

"No, you're not. I can hear it in your voice." Max made his way to a nearby bench and sunk down onto the wooden seat. "They messed you over, didn't they?"

"Nothing…I can't…handle." Kyle's bravado would have been more convincing had he not inhaled a sharp breath of pain mid-sentence.

"To get to me." Max continued his thought as if Kyle hadn't even spoken.

"Look, I handled it for you…for now. But Max…I think they have a beat on where you are. You've gotta get out, man. Get on familiar ground and double security." Kyle paused as he searched for another option for Max. "Or better yet, take a long vacation on a very secluded island. You've been wanting to check out one of those islands in…"

"What do they want?" Max's hardened voice shot down Kyle's suggestion with such accuracy that Kyle instantly knew getting Max to follow the book on this one maybe not be that easy.

Silence greeted Max's question and he hung his head in frustration, a war beginning inside of him. The war for information. The war to walk away in ignorant bliss. To rush in and handle the situation on his own. Or to fade into the shadows and not give a damn. To follow his instincts and jump into the thick of things. Or to turn his back and pour his energies into a project less haunting…more safe…

When he finally spoke, his voice was distracted and hoarse. "I have…that EMG meeting tonight. I'll, um…I'll handle that and…and tie up a few loose ends. I'll be out of here by tomorrow morning." His eyes squeezed shut and an image of Liz's face flashed before his mind. A hand of regret and unexplainable pain reached in and squeezed Max's heart till he felt the breath tighten in his lungs. He ran a frustrated hand through his hair. "Damn."

"What?"

"There's someone…I…I can't just…" Max let out a heavy sigh. "Look, it's going to take longer. I'm in the middle of something…I can't just walk away…"

"Max…"

"I can't." Max's voice hardened with determination. "I…won't." Shaking his head, Max's eyes drifted upward to the bright blue sky full of puffy white clouds, the cheery carefree atmosphere around him in complete contrast to the dark, foreboding emotions swirling in his heart.

Will this ever be over? His haunted midnight eyes fluttered closed and he swallowed hard. It's over when I say it is. And I say it is right now... "I'm out of this, Kyle. You and the team do what you have to, but I'm through. I don't intend to live the rest of my life on their terms."

"But, Max…"

"I don't even intend to live them on yours." Max stated with finality. "Thanks for the warning. I'll be extra careful." His voice lowered seriously as his gaze unconsciously shifted to the back door of the B&B. "Kyle...be careful. I've lost too much. I can't lose…"

Kyle's ragged sigh came through the phone as loudly as the end of Max's dangled sentence. "You won't. If we both watch our backs…neither of us will."

With that, the call ended.

And another began…
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
The front door of the B&B slammed closed causing the Welcome sign in the door to rattle against the window. Angel popped her head up from under the counter and hid her grin when she saw Liz furiously head toward the front desk.

"Where is he?" Liz demanded.

"Good morning to you too, dear." Angel commented politely ignoring Liz's question.

"I'm not in the mood for games, Angel. Now tell me where he is."

"He who?" Angel asked trying to keep the laughter out of her voice. Boy, whatever Max did it sure got her hotter than Angel had seen her in a long time. He'd promised fireworks…looked like he knew how to deliver.

Liz rolled her eyes. "You know who. Max. I believe you described him as '6', handsome as all get out, and very rich.' I swear, Angel, if I'd known you were harboring the enemy under your roof that night, I would have found him and hauled him out of here myself." She put her hands on her hips and asked her question once more with a little more emphasis this time. "Now WHERE IS HE?"

"I'm sorry, dear. I can't divulge that information." Angel replied calmly.

"You what?" Liz's voice was low with surprise and anger.

Angel shook her head. "Now, I know you aren't going to like this, but he's a guest in this establishment and as such is entitled to his privacy."

"His PRIVACY? HIS privacy? What about MINE? He certainly didn't seem to care about THAT when he pulled his latest stunt!"

"His latest stunt? You mean there've been others?" Angel asked wondering exactly how many 'stunts' Max had pulled on Liz already.

"Of course there have." Liz responded patronizingly. "Let's see…" She raised her hand and started counting off Max's various sins. "…there was showing up at Claire's office unannounced. Then the sweater thing. Dropping by for a tour of the center. THEN he had the audacity to actually volunteer…of all things!"

She flipped her hair behind her shoulders and crossed her arms in front of her as she let out a sigh. "And I haven't even gotten to that pompous, arrogant attitude he carries around with him everywhere he goes. Talking about fairy tales and judging what I do and don't feel for Sean. As if he would know what I feel for anybody. Not to mention this….his latest."

Angel leaned over the counter mischief shining in her dark eyes. "Hmm. Sounds like a busy boy. And what exactly was his latest stunt?"

Liz pulled out the flyer from her purse and slapped it on the counter. "Here. He put that in every paper in town! Take a look at it then tell me he has a right to his privacy!"

Angel scanned the flyer and tried her best to hold back her laughter, knowing it would only stoke the flames of Liz's anger. "What's the 2-All stand for?" She asked clearing her throat to hide the bubble of laughter that was just aching to explode.

Liz shrugged her dismissal as she looked down and shuffled her feet unconsciously, knowing her answer would show she was just as involved in the game as he was. "That's his stupid guy way of letting me know that our score is even now. Two to two."

Angel's eyes raised to watch Liz and her constraint lasted about 5 seconds after Liz's response then she couldn't hold it back any longer. She burst into laughter as tears started to escape from the corners of her eyes. "I'm…so….sorry…" She gasped between laughs. "This…is…sooo…good."

Liz's head snapped up. "Oh, no! No, Angel. Noooo! Don't you do it too. Don't you dare be on his side!" Liz demanded as she put her hands on her hips and glared at Angel who was too busy wiping tears from her eyes to notice. Recognizing present defeat against Max's apparently insurmountable charm, Liz rolled her eyes and let out a groan before plopping down on a nearby seat putting her hands in her head. "That's it. I give up. I give up the whole lot of you."

Just then the door opened and a little 5 year old came flying into the room. "Kendall! Kendall! I knew it was you!" She threw herself against Liz for a hug.

"Jaedan!" Liz's lips spread into a beautiful smile as she reached over and picked her up giving her another quick hug and kiss before setting her on her knee.

Jaedan looked back and forth between the two women, her curious eyes clouded with confusion and concern. "Kendall? Grandnanny? What's wrong? Grandnanny, why are you crying?"

Liz smiled at her before turning a meaningful look toward Angel. "Nothing's wrong, sweetie. Grandnanny just joined the ranks of the enemy, that's all."

"More like appreciating someone's incredible cleverness and creativity, if you ask me." Angel countered as she shook her head looking once more at the flyer. "So, what did you do to him to make him pull this?"

Liz's mouth dropped open. "How can you…I can't believe…what makes you think I did anything to prompt this latest attack?" Complete innocence was etched all over her expression.

Angel chuckled as she shook her head. "Because I know you."

Liz looked at Jaedan and made a funny face while shaking her head and making small circles with her forefinger by her ear signaling Angel's apparent lunacy, which only sent Jaedan into a fit of giggles. Angel noticed and smiled slightly before adding a final comment that stopped all action. "And because I saw him come home yesterday…"

Liz's smile faded as she glanced back at Angel. "Oh."

"Yes. Oh." Angel echoed as she leaned against the counter once more. "So, you want to tell me exactly what that was all about, Ms. Not-So-Innocent-After-All?"

"Hey, he started it!" Was Liz's opening defense.

"Oh, that's really mature." Angel commented sarcastically glancing at Jaedan.

Liz pointed her finger at Angel for emphasis. "You don't know him, Angel. He's ruthless and heartless…and he won't stop until he gets what he wants. And what he wants is the Center. And I'm not going to let him have it. He's just wasting his time. Now, if I have to pour toner on him every day till he gets the point, that's what I'll do."

Angel rolled her eyes and chuckled indulgently as Jaedan took the opportunity of their silence to launch into her latest most exciting news. "Guess what, Kendall!"

"What?" Liz asked with a smile as she looked into those dark eyes that were so very familiar to her.

"I met Prince Charming!' Jaedan exclaimed as she started bouncing on Liz's knee.

Liz looked disapprovingly over Jaedan's head toward Angel. "Telling her fairy tales again, are we?"

Angel shrugged as her eyes began to twinkle. "Hey, don't blame me. I'm not responsible for that romantic heart of hers."

Before Liz could respond, Jaedan piped up again. "Kendall! I gotta tell ya aaallll about him. He is sooo awesome!"

"Jaedan, honey, Kendall and I were in the middle of something. Can you wait to tell her about Prince Charming later?" Angel asked knowing exactly how long winded her little charge could be when she got going on her favorite subject…fairy tales with all of the Knights and Princes and damsels in distress they brought with them.

Jaedan's lower lip came out in a pout as she crossed her arms in front of her. "But I wanna talk to Kendall."

Liz caught on to Angel's reason for wanting Jaedan out of the room and quickly joined her effort. If she didn't, they'd be there all day listening to stories of the fairylands that Jaedan seemed to visit each night in her dreams. Sometimes she wished Angel wouldn't indulge Jaedan's penchant for weaving fantasies in her mind. It would only end up hurting her one day…as it did anyone who truly believed in fairy tale dreams and happily ever afters.

Liz shook those thoughts out of her mind as she offered a suggestion. "Jaedan, Grandnanny's right. She and I need to talk about a few things. Why don't you run and play and as soon as I get done we can go for a walk and talk all you want, ok? How does that sound?"

"Can we maybe see if we can find Prince Charming again?" Jaedan asked excitedly.

Liz glanced at Angel with a what-is-she-talking-about look on her face then shrugged as she started to laugh. "Sure. Why not?" She leaned over and kissed her quickly then set her down on the floor. Jaedan waved good bye as she ran up the stair to her room.

"Sorry. I just didn't want her getting ideas. She's already a handful as it is." Angel said apologetically.

"Yeah, I know. She comes by it naturally." Liz admitted before returning to their topic of conversation. "Now, where were we?"
~~~~~~~~~~~~
After a few moments of dark contemplation, Max tried to shake off the disturbing thoughts crashing in on him after his call with Kyle. He failed.

Why now? After all this time? And who exactly was looking for him? And for what purpose? And why…why couldn't the past just stay there? In the past? Why did it have to rear its head at unexpected times, in unexpected places? And most of all…would he ever, ever find relief? Healing? Peace?

Letting out a shaky breath, Max forced his thoughts to shift. Distraction. That's what he needed. That's the only thing that would stop the pain. Banish the ghosts. Give him a chance at a semi-normal existence. And he knew just where to find the distraction he so desperately needed…

Max slipped around the front of the house hoping to catch a glimpse of where the little Princess had run off to, though he seriously doubted it given the amount of time that had lapsed. Still it was worth a try.

And the try was a bust. Instead of the Princess, all he saw was an old beat up car sitting next to Angel's blue Honda. It looked maroon, but Max couldn't quite tell because of the rust that had started to eat away at the paint on the sides. Hmmmm. Whoever Princess was searching for certainly had awful tastes in vehicles. If that even was her vehicle.

Max headed for the front door then stopped short when he saw Liz through the window talking to Angel up at the front desk. Uh-huh. He wasn't going in there. Not yet. Not until he knew if Angel had completed her mission. Max grinned slyly to himself and slipped away toward the back of the building. He knew the perfect place where he knew he'd be able to watch the activities inside, himself unseen.

As he rounded the corner, Max heard the cutting off of a motor somewhere in the distance and wondered if perhaps Princess' dream mommy had found her way home to another cottage. He shrugged unconsciously. Probably. That would explain why he hadn't seen the little girl inside when he'd glanced in the window.

Well, the truth about her fantasy family would have to be put on hold for a while. He had the conclusion of a certain Round 2 to observe. Max closed the back door quietly and slipped through the kitchen, up the back stairs, down the hall and carefully sat on the top step of the stairway leading to the front entryway. He grinned slightly. Perfect. He had front row seats and the audio was perfect as Angel and Liz's words began to drift up to where he sat….
~~~~~~~~~~~
"Where were we?" Angel repeated. "I believe we were discussing your favorite subject lately….Max."

Liz rolled her eyes as she leaned her elbow against the counter. "Oh, please. The only reason he's on my list of things to discuss is because he's chosen to insinuate himself into every area of my life. He's a temporary pest who is wasting his time trying to get something he never will. And I am temporarily making it my mission to show him that."

Angel's grin spread across her face as she remembered the reason behind Liz's little stunt and how Max had guessed the meaning behind it. "So he was right."

Liz raised a slender eyebrow. "Right? About what?"

Angel shook her head in wonder. "He told me last night. You know, I thought maybe he was off base a little, but--no. He was right. He said the point you were trying to make with your toner stunt was that he was wasting his time. Wow. Either you're slipping or you've finally met your match, young lady." She glanced down at the flyer a smile spreading across her face. "And by the looks of the score, I'd have to say it's the second one."

Liz rolled her eyes again. "I am not slipping. And he's not as smart as you think he is. In fact, how do you know I didn't want him to figure out my little 'message'?"

"No doubt you did. And despite what you say…he's probably the smartest man you've met in your entire life. I know he's close to being one of the sharpest, most perceptive I've ever met…second only to my Jay, of course. And I think you know it too. In fact, I think you were counting on him to be. Weren't you?" Angel challenged.

Realizing that any further protest would be useless, Liz shrugged her shoulders and cleared her throat. "So, if you know so much about Max…" Liz leaned over the counter and lowered her voice conspiratorially. "…tell me what his next move will be."

Knowing the moment had come for Max's surprise counter attack, Angel said, "I'll go you one better. I'll show you." She reached behind the counter and pulled out the box placing it on the counter in front of Liz.

"What's this?" Liz asked as she crinkled up her nose. A beautiful expensively wrapped gift was the last thing she'd expected.

"That, I don't know." She shrugged and pushed the package forward. "He wouldn't tell me what was in it. He seemed to think you'd be looking for him this morning. Another point for him, by the way." Angel chuckled at the scowl on Liz's face. "Anyway, he asked me to make sure you got this. So….open it up."

Liz tucked her hair behind her ears before she hesitantly reached for the package. She began to bit her lower lip a sure sign of her uncertainty. Angel started to laugh. "What's the matter? You afraid something's going to jump out at you?"

Liz laughed nervously. "With Max you never…quite…know." She said as she carefully looked the package over from all angles before finally grabbing it and tearing the wrapping off. Once removing the wrapping Liz stood back with a puzzled look on her face. "A wooden box?" She looked up at Angel whose face showed as much confusion as Liz's did.

"Well, open it up." Angel suggested. "Surely that can't be all."

Liz picked the multi-grained wood box up and looked at it closely from all angles. "It doesn't open."

"Here, let me see." Angel said as she reached for the box and began to scrutinize it carefully. "You're right. There doesn't seem to be any…seams or openings. Huh."

"Maybe there's some kind of trap door or something. You think?"

Angel shook her head. "I don't know. I don’t see where there could be one." Just then the phone rang and Angel put the box down to go answer it. Liz picked it up and started going over it again running her hand along the smooth surface trying to see if there were any inconsistencies in the covering. She picked it up and carried into the sitting room.

About fifteen minutes later, Angel popped her head into the room to see if Liz had figured out her mysterious box. "Oh, there you are. So, did you get it open?"

Liz let out a sigh of frustration as she pushed her hair behind her ears. "Are you kidding? This thing is like Fort Knox."

"Do you want me to help?" Angel's curiosity was getting the best of her. She definitley wanted to see how this little plan of Max's would all turn out.

Liz shook her head. "No, I want to do this myself. He obviously has a plan, I want to see what it is."

Angel smiled at the way Liz was getting into this puzzle Max had laid out for her. "Ok. I have things to do in the back, so let me know when you get it figured out, alright?"

"Yeah, alright." Liz agreed absently her full concentration back on the box in front of her. Looked like this one was going to take a while… "Alrighty, Max. Let's see what you're up to…"

to be continued…
posted on 21-Oct-2001 6:00:28 PM
~ chapter 12 ~


Alex's brow furrowed when he saw the unfamiliar number on the caller id. "Who the hell?" Putting his hands behind his head, Alex leaned back in his chair and propped his feet up on his desk to wait for the answering machine to click on.

"Dammit, Alex. I really needed you to be there…"

Grinning, Alex lunged for the phone and grabbed the handset. "Kyle. Dude, how you doing? And where the hell are you calling from?"

There was a loud sigh of relief on the other end. "That's the question of the hour." He let out another sigh. "I'm somewhere in or near New Haven."

Damn. Alex's eyes squeezed shut and his stomach twisted into knots. Ok. Deep breath. Just remember you've not heard from Max in ages… Clearing his throat, Alex forced himself to talk. "So…uh, what's going on in New Haven?"

"Quite a bit, it seems." Leaning back against the pillows on the couch, Kyle took a deep, slow breath and tried not to allow the pain he was feeling to make it to his voice. "Look, Alex, we've got a slight problem. With Max."

Double damn. How did Kyle find out about his little search for Max's mysterious lady so fast? "Oh really? What's that coyote up to these days?"

"Corporate raiding. Wooing all the beautiful ladies. Gambling our properties away with those eccentric friends of his." A smile made it into Kyle's voice. "You know…the usual." His smile faded once he'd gotten a chuckle from Alex and immediately cut to the chase. "The IRA want Max to pull a job for them."

Alex's feet hit the floor with a thud and his eyes blinked a few times in surprise. "Ex-excuse me?"

"You heard me."

Releasing a shaky breath, Alex swallowed hard. "But…why Max? I mean, he's not been in the business for years."

Kyle shrugged. "He's the best."

"Damn." Alex paused a moment to let the new information sink in. Suddenly, a new thought hit him. The girl, Liz, that Max wanted to know about. From all that Alex could gather from Max's reactions to her, this 'relationship' could turn serious very fast. Even if Max didn't know that yet. And that serious relationship could cause serious problems if things weren't handled right. Especially given when he and Max suspected of her background. "Does Max know?"

"He knows trouble is brewing but he doesn't know who or why." Kyle explained. "Look, I don't want him in this. He doesn't want to be in this. That's why I'm calling you."

"Ok. What do you need?"

"We've got to get the team together to decide what to do, but most of all I want Max protected…wherever he goes."

"Look, Kyle…that's not going to be that easy." Alex shook his head in regret. "You know when Max split, the bureau did a lock down on all of his contacts."

"Yeah, and I also know they were covering the butts big time. They owe him this."

Silence followed as Alex's mind quickly began to whirl. "Hey. You said New Haven, right? What about Nate? If I remember right he's the mayor of the town."

"Nate Carter is the mayor of New Haven?" Kyle's blue eyes widened with shock, his voice incredulous. "You've got to joking. Wow. Who would have ever thought Nate would do something so…prosaic?"

Alex chuckled. "I know. I considered going to the staff psychiatrist when I found out. I thought I'd lost my mind." Sobering instantly at his last comment, Alex shook his head. "Man, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said…"

"It's ok, Kyle. We were all there. We know what really happened." Kyle took a deep breath and forced his mind to focus. "So…Nate's in New Haven. Huh. I wonder if Max knows. And if he does…what the hell is keeping him there? I mean, he was so determined to stay. Which makes no sense because it's not like he can't do business long distance…"

"Who knows what his reasons are? He's Max." Alex lied through his teeth then quickly switched the topic back to Nate. "Hey…why don't we get Nate to provide back up?"

Kyle laughed outright. "You've got to be joking, right? He'd rather put the bullet into Max than keep one from hitting him."

"You know, I know that things were bad between them but…"

"Bad? Alex, they both blamed each other for what happened. Blood vows were made, man." Kyle shook his head. "No. Nate's the last thing Max needs right now. First, he doesn't need the aggravation. And secondly…he doesn't need the reminder of what he lost."

"What they both lost." Alex reminded him gently. "They both loved her, Kyle. Which is exactly the reason Nate might be willing to help."

"I…really don't know about this, Alex."

"Let me work on it. You know its amazing how powerful a memory can be sometimes. Maybe this time it'll work in our favor."

"And if it doesn't?" Kyle's doubt and worry were evident in his voice.

"I'll find another way." Alex promised soberly. "Max won't have to deal with this, ok? We'll make sure of it."

Kyle nodded his agreement and let out a relieved sigh knowing he now had Alex in his corner. "Ok. I'll uh…I'll check back with you later and see what's going on."

"Deal." Alex stated with a nod. "Over…"

"…and out."
~~~~~~~~~~
Twenty minutes later found Liz still bent over the box her eyebrows furrowed. She ran her fingers through her hair and let out a yell of frustration. "Aaaarrrggghhh! This is impossible!" She sat back and eyed the box from a distance. Wait. Maybe the key isn't in how to open the box but why Max gave me a box with no openings in the first place. "Alright Max. What is it you're trying to prove?"

Shaking her head, Liz started to tap her fingers on the table. For the life of her she couldn't figure out why Max would give her a box with no openings. No, that made absolutely no sense. There had to be something more to it. There had to be a way to get inside. There just had to be.

Finally, she gave up trying to figure out the reasoning behind it and decided to just dive back into it again. "Well, whatever it is, I'm not going to find out sitting here and stewing about it, am I?" The question was asked out loud to no one in particular. "You are not going to get the better of me, Max. If it takes me a week of Sunday's I'm going to figure this out!"

Tilting her head to the side, Liz looked back at the box once more. Suddenly, a slow smile spread over her lips as an evil chuckle bubbled up from inside of her. "A-ha! I got ya!" She knelt down on the floor in front of the table and pulled the box closer to her the pattern becoming clearer the closer she got.

"Angel!!!! Angel, come here! I think I've got it!!" Liz yelled out excitedly. Liz was bouncing up and down impatiently by the time Angel made it into the room.

"What? What is it?" Angel asked as she came rushing into the room. Disappointment clouded her face when she saw the box sitting on the table unopened. "I thought you said you got it."

Liz's face was glowing with satisfaction and a hint of pride danced in her dark eyes. "Oh, I do. Look." She pointed to the box. "See the pattern the wood makes on the top? There's the light wood. The grain is going in one direction and the dark wood goes in the opposite. Now, take a look at the sides." She tilted the box to show Angel. "See how it's just the opposite?"

Angel shrugged her shoulders. "So?"

"So….if I just…move…the side…the direction the wood grain is going… on the top..." Liz took her fingers and pulled the right side of the box toward her. There was a sudden clicking noise as the left side slid away from her at the same time revealing a latch to the top of the box.

Liz squealed with delight as Angel clapped her hands. "You did it! Hon, that's great!"

Liz took a deep breath as her face lit up with a bright smile. "Ok. Now to find out what Max Evans is up to…" She carefully lifted the top of the box and looked inside.

Suddenly, her smile faded. "You've got to be kidding me!" She threw back her head as she let out a groan. "No! I can't believe this! There's another one!"

Angel looked over her shoulder and started to chuckle but stopped abruptly and cleared her throat when Liz opened her eyes and looked up at her sharply. "This isn't funny."

"Of course, it isn't, dear." Angel said trying to keep the laughter out her voice but failed miserably to keep a hint of it from her eyes. One last chuckle escaped and Liz groaned.

Looking down at the contents of the box, Liz let out another sigh of frustration and shook her head. "This man's insane. You know that don't you?" She asked glancing up at Angel. "I mean, only someone who has completely lost their marbles would do this to another human being."

Angel sat down and started to chuckle. "Yeah, but at least he's not boring." She reached into the box and pulled out the carved cylindrical wooden object from its black velvet cavity.

"Wow. That's so beautiful." Liz commented with awe as she ran her hand along the side facing her really getting a good look at it for the first time. "Look at the carvings. They look...oh what's that design that's so popular? Celtic. That's what it is."

Angel held it up so they could both look at it in a better light. What they saw was nothing short of amazing. The seven-inch cylinder was made of a deep rose-colored cherrywood imbedded with an intricate pattern of carvings. Try as they might, they couldn't find either a beginning or end on the design. It was one continuous beautiful pattern. Not surprisingly, they also couldn't find a way to open it.

"So, do you think there's something inside? And if so, what do you think it is?" Angel asked.

Liz shook her head. "I haven't the faintest idea. I just want to know if he was merciful enough to leave instructions on how to open this one!" She rolled her eyes at her own words as she put her head in her hands and groaned. "Wait. What am I saying? We are talking about Max here."

"Well, I don't think the wood's grain direction is going to help you on this one."

"Obviously, since it's all one color and the with the design there is no noticeable grain." Liz retorted with borderline sarcasm as she reached for the cylinder and began turning it around in her hands. "Impossible. Simply impossible." She placed the cylinder on the table carefully and leaned her back against the sofa behind her. And adorable pout appeared on her lips as she crossed her arms in front of her. "Why is he doing this to me?"

"Because he knows he can." Angel answered without hesitation. "And because you want him to."

"And just what exactly do you mean by that?" Liz asked as irritation flashed in her dark eyes.

Angel rolled her eyes. "As if you didn't know." When Angel's gaze met Liz's stubborn silence, she continued. "Look. He's probably the most intriguing, challenging, intelligent, funny, witty, gorgeous man you've ever met in your entire life. He's showering all of his attention on you….and you, my dear, are LOVING it."

"Pwash! That is so not true!" Liz exclaimed as she got up from the floor and began to pace in front of Angel. "I mean, yeah, he's…he's inventive." Her hand waved in the air indicating the wooden boxes on the table. "This…this whole box thing really has me…"

"Frustrated?" Angel finished for her.

"Yes. Exactly. Frustrated. And the whole volunteering thing is just…just…"

"Frustrating?" Angel said again as the corner of her lips began to twitch with amusement.

"YES!" Liz practically screamed before rambling on without noticing Angel's duplication of words. "Not to mention his notes. They're so…so….so cute…and…and clever. And that's just plain…" Liz shook her hands in front of her. "…ooooh, I don't know the word…"

"A little…frustrating…maybe?" Angel repeated once more as a knowing twinkle came into her eyes.

"Precisely." Liz said with a decided nod of her head and a jab of her forefinger in the air as she continued to pace.

Angel tilted her head slightly preparing herself for the response to her next question. "So, have you kissed him yet?"

Liz stopped her pacing and turned on Angel her mouth opened in shock. "I…I…absolutely not! How could you even ask such a question?"

Angel shrugged nonchalantly. "Well, I know if it were me and I was your age faced with a man as utterly fabulous and sexy as Max Evans, I'd kiss him the first chance I got. Especially if he made me as…" Angel paused to clear her throat meaningfully as she wiggled her eyebrows. "…'frustrated' as Max makes you."

Liz groaned and Angel stiffled a giggle. Angel's ebony eyes twinkled with laughter as she leaned back against comfy cushions on the couch she was sitting on. "In fact, I did, come to think of it. About thirty minutes after meeting Jay, my lips were permanently attached to his. Jay said if I ever kissed him like that again, he'd have to marry me." Angel shrugged her shoulders with a grin of remembrance. "So I did. We were married 2 weeks later."

"Yeah, well, I'm not you." Liz countered lamely as she crossed her arms in front of her and beginning to tap her foot impatiently knowing where Angel was trying to direct this conversation. She attempted a nonchalant shrug of her slender shoulders and an air of indifference. The attempt failed. "Besides sexiness is in the eye of the beholder."

"I know." Angel sighed dramatically, her next statement quipped with a smirk. "And you've gotten an eye full lately."

Recognizing the truth when it hit her square in the face but unwilling to bend in her stubbornness, Liz bowed out by attempting to change subjects. "You know what? It's useless discussing this with you because he's apparently done it to you too."

"Done what?" A sudden grin spread over Angel's face.

"Weaved his little magic spell over you like he's done every other woman in New Haven. He's even gotten to Maria." She sat back down on the floor with a plop and grabbed up the wooden cylinder. As she began to concentrate on it she added a layer to her denial that even she wasn't convinced of. "Fortunately for me, I'm immune to his charms."

Angel laughed out right. "Yeah, right. And there's a little girl upstairs who doesn't believe in Prince Charming." Angel said lowering her voice with a chuckle as she leaned over and took the cylinder from Liz's hand. "So, how do we open it? There doesn't seem to be any openings on this one either."

Liz leaned back and started to eye the wood carefully as teasing was put aside and they both began to concentrate on the task at hand. "But there has to be." She said with conviction as her fingers began to slowly perceptively trace the carvings on the otherwise smooth wood in front of her. "I just can't imagine him giving just this to me." Liz shook her head as she started talking more to herself then to Angel. "No, there's something special inside. It's hidden and hard to get to, but once I find the key to opening the case…it'll be magnificent. I can just feel it."

Hearing her words, Angel's contemplative gaze moved to focus on Liz's face and how her complete focus was on obtaining the precious object she was sure Max left for her inside. Suddenly, Angel's own vision started to clear. Not only did she see the woman before her eagerly trying to discover the hidden treasure so carefully protected in the wooden shell…she also saw the subtle message the giver had intended with the gift.

"Just like you." She whispered absently unaware that she'd spoken out loud.

Liz glanced up at her having heard her voice something but not sure what she said. "What?"

Deciding to keep her own thoughts on the subject for now, Angel shook her head slightly and said, "Oh, nothing. I was just talking to myself." She smiled suddenly and indicated the tube in Liz's hand. "Maybe there's a secret combination or something."

"What do you mean?" Liz asked as she scrunched up her nose.

"Well, you know. Like maybe one or two of the sections made by the carvings aren't exactly the same as the others. Or maybe the top turns. Or maybe you have to push…."

Liz sat up excitedly. "No, wait. Go back. What did you say about the sections being different?"

"Maybe the design of the carving isn't perfectly symmetrical. Maybe there's a section that's not quite like the others and that's the key to opening it." Angel answered her own excitement beginning to show in her eyes.

Liz immediately began scrutinizing each and every bit of the tube in front of her. Angel sat back and watched her with great interest as silence filled the room. She'd never seen her so bent on achieving a goal before. Except the goal of keeping her heart free and clear of complicated attachments, that is. And as far as that goal was concerned, Angel had a strong feeling she'd be losing that battle sooner than she thought now that Max was in her life and apparently not planning to go anywhere.

Her thoughts quickly turned to Max. Was he just playing a game with Liz? Or did he really see the hidden treasure of her heart? The real person tucked away from the world, hidden behind walls of half-truths and outright lies? There was no doubt he saw her soul in her paintings. How could he not see it when he was standing right in front of her looking in her eyes? No, he saw it. And no matter how much fun he seemed to having and how casual he tried to make this pursuit of his appear, Angel was convinced that this was anything but a game to Max. Even if he didn't know it yet himself.

"Hey, I think I got it!" Liz exclaimed bringing Angel's focus back to her and the project at hand.

"Where?" Angel asked as she leaned forward and studied the case intently.

"Right here." Liz explained as she indicated the pattern about a half an inch from the top of the case. "See how it's larger then the rest of the pattern. I mean, it's still the same, but it's different. Maybe if I turn it…"

Liz attempted to turn the band of pattern she'd indicated, but to no avail. She twisted it the other way and released it with a sigh. "Nope. That's not it. I thought I really had it…" She said as disappointment filled her voice. She placed the tube on the table and released a sigh.

Sensing Liz's discouragement, Angel made a suggestion. "Maybe you should take a break. You've been going at these for quite a while now. Perhaps some distance will give you a different perspective."

Liz sat up suddenly. "That's it. A different perspective." She tilted the case till she had it lying on its side then began to roll it along the table. As she did so, there was a noticeable imbalance in the way the tube rolled. The right side seemed heavier and not as willing to move along the table. Liz grabbed it up and started looking at the bottom of the case. "It's heavier on this side. Which might mean there's a mechanism here in place to open it up…"

She fiddled with it for about thirty seconds then gave a cry of victory as she heard a click and felt the bottom turn in her hands. The moment it turned, the top slowly began to open releasing the hidden doors of the case causing them to slowly swing free.

Once the doors had completely swung open, Liz and Angel leaned forward to see the treasure inside.

"Oh my God." Liz breathed the words softly. "This is absolutely…"

"Wow." Angel said as she sat down next to Liz and gingerly touched the object before them pulling it out of its resting place and onto the table.

What they saw before them was an ornately carved hourglass. Three wooden legs, like the thread in a screw, wound from base to top giving support to the glass in the center. The glass itself was crystal clear with a design etched along the top and bottom edges similar to the carving on the outside case it had been resting in. On the wooden top securing the hourglass was what looked like a crest or coat of arms imbedded in the grain of the wood. As elegant at the casing and the glass was, it was actually the sand inside that caused both women to exclaim with wonder.

The sand was of no particular color. In fact, there were too many colors to name. Various shades of blue and red, green and purple and colors they knew no name for were encased in the glass before them. One had only to turn the hourglass and a completely different picture would take place right before their eyes as the colored sand slipped through the narrow neck twirling and mixing together in a dance of beauty.

"This is amazing." Liz whispered before turning to Angel suddenly. "Did he leave anything else?"

Angel chuckled as she indicated the hourglass. "Isn't that enough?" She teased.

Liz rolled her eyes as she grinned. "You know what I mean. Like a note or something." Liz made the statement completely unaware of how acquainted with Max's habits she was becoming. But Angel did notice and fought the grin that wanted to break out on her face as she watched Liz turn back to the hourglass and touch it tenderly, adding an awed whisper of explanation. "Max always likes to leave notes."

"Well, it just so happens…." Angel handed her the envelope Max had left for her.

Liz held it up and read it out loud. "From one Princess to another." She looked at Angel a cocked her eyebrow. "What could that possibly mean?"

"I don't know. Maybe he'll explain in the note." Angel said impatiently. "Well, hurry up and open it! At least on that we know how!"

Liz started to chuckle at Angel's impatient joking as she ripped open the top of the envelope and pulled out the letter inside. "Feeling a little frustrated? Or that your time has been wasted, perhaps? Believe me, Kendall. I know the feeling. At least your quest yielded a profit. Mine required a bath."

Liz looked at Angel and shook her head as they both began to snicker. She turned back to the note and continued to read Max's message.

"Now to the hourglass and the cases you had to struggle with to get to it. Di had these boxes made for me shortly after a talk we had at the Palace one night…."

"Oh, my God. Do you think he means….?" Liz looked up at Angel.

"No. He couldn't possibly mean…*that* Diana. Could he?"

Liz tipped the hourglass carefully so she could look under it. "Oh, yes he could." She stated before reading the inscription underneath. "'To Max. May the steady beat of time be the rhythm that leads you home. Love Di.' And there's the royal crest on top!" Liz exclaimed excitedly. "I can't believe I missed that! This really was from Princess Diana!"

"Wow!" Angel shook her head in awe. "So, that's what he meant from one Princess to another. Well, what else does he have to say?" Angel asked impatiently as she indicated the letter in Liz's hand.

Liz turned back to the letter her hands beginning to shake a little. "In that conversation she taught me a very important lesson. She said, 'Time is never wasted when you're on the journey to being true to yourself. Each step you take in following your heart can only lead you home.' I've followed that advice ever since and it's worked so far. I've also realized that the greatest treasures in life, although often hidden and usually hard to reach, are made that much more precious by the time spent in discovering them. Sitting here now, writing this to you, I'm convinced of that more than ever."

"And it looks like you understand that concept too. At least in this case. There's a part of you that can't resist a challenge and you proved that today. As you have every day that I've known you. And that tells me one thing: You and I are very much alike. We follow the same game and we play for the same stakes. All or nothing. No matter how hard you try, I won't consider a second of my time as having been wasted if in the end you're convinced of that. Until then, I'm having as much fun as you are.

Forever, Your Adonis

P.S. By the way, how long did it take you? Don't worry. You can tell me tomorrow…when we start Round 3."

Liz sat in stunned silence re-reading parts of the note that caused her heart to leap in her chest. Being true to yourself. Follow your heart. Lead you home. Hidden treasures made precious by time spent in discovery… Very much the same. All or nothing. If in the end you're convinced…

If only she could be who she really was. If only she dared to follow her heart. If only her past didn't weigh her down. If only….

Angel watched the changing expressions on Liz's face and knew in that instant the struggle she was facing. The hidden meaning of Max's words didn't go unnoticed or even misunderstood. Liz knew exactly what Max was telling her. And it frightened her to her very core. Because deep in the recesses of her hidden heart she knew she wanted it too.

"Sounds to me like a man who knows what he wants." Angel ventured quietly. "And what he wants is you. The next question is in what way and for how long."

"Angel please. Don't." Liz raised her hand as if to stop Angel, but her voice was more of a plea than the irritated protests she'd voiced earlier.

"Not voicing it won't make it any less true." Angel persisted gently.

"I can't do this. You know this isn't in the cards for me no matter how much I...." Liz's voice began to shake with emotion she hadn't planned on feeling…a sense of overwhelming emptiness--as if she'd lost something she'd never really had a chance to fully experience. As if she were standing on the edge of a vastness…something much greater than herself…about to see the wonder of what was just beyond and being yanked back to solid ground by the cold gripping hands of reality.

"You of all people know why I can't wish for this…any of this." She ran her fingers through her hair and let out a sigh as she realized just how quickly she'd been caught up in Max's challenging gift. "He's right you know. I do play for all or nothing. I tried foolishly for all once and now…I have no choice but to take nothing…for the rest of my life."

The tears that sprang to her eyes didn't go unnoticed by Angel and she reached out to touch Liz's shoulder. Liz brushed her hand away as she quickly got up and blinked back the tears. When she spoke her voice was soft with restrained emotion. "Tell Jaedan I had to go back to the Center, but I'll be back tonight for our walk."

"And Max? What do I tell him? He really wants you to have this."

Liz glanced back at the hourglass and shook her head slightly sending a tear from the corner of her eye down her cheek. "Tell him…it's…amazing. But…I…can't accept it. Only a real princess deserves the honor. I'm…not the one he's looking for."

With that final word, Liz turned and rushed out the door escaping back to a world where Princes and fairy tales and life full of beautiful dreams ceased to exist.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
After Liz's sudden departure, Angel sat lost in thought until a slight movement at the doorway caught her attention. She glanced up just as Max eased into the room and leaned against the doorjam.

"Did you enjoy the show?" Angel asked as she raised her eyes to his.

A look of surprise passed over his face. For a moment he thought of protesting, but seeing the hint of knowledge in her eyes he decided what he'd always heard might be true. That honest really is the best policy. "How did you know I was hiding?" Max asked.

Angel shrugged with a slight grin. "It's an old house. The first step after the landing on the front stairs squeaks the moment any kind of pressure is applied to it."

"So, you knew I was there the whole time?"

Angel nodded silently with a grin. Her expression grew serious as she glanced back at the hourglass in front of her. "So, did you achieve the desired effect?"

Max's face mirrored her own in seriousness as he contemplated his response. The cloud of sadness in his eyes showcased the thoughts in his mind. "Yes…and no. Tears were not on the agenda. You have to believe me, Angel, I never intended to make her cry."

"I know. And *you* didn't." Angel assured him before they both became silent, each lost in their own world full of separate thoughts and feelings.

Angel's thoughts drifted to the struggle she knew was ahead of Liz if she even so much as dared to get involved with Max and how she wasn't willing to take that risk. Not yet. And just how long and difficult that road might be if and when she decided she was. For Max, his thoughts turned once more to the pain he saw flash in Liz's eyes…her tears on the docks and the unknown man in her past who had caused her so much sorrow and fear.

Finally breaking his silence Max asked a question of his own. "Who was he?"

Angel's eyes met his in a challenge unwilling to give anything away for free. No, if he really wanted this as much as she thought he did, he was going to have to work for it. "He who?"

A faint knowing smile touched Max's lips. "The man who hurt her so badly that she can't bear to let another man get close to her."

Angel shrugged. "Oh, I wouldn't say she hasn't let any man get close..."

"If you're talking about Sean, he's not close." Max shot back not unkindly.

Angel narrowed her eyes. "How can you be so sure?"

"Because I have a dozen of my own Seans throughout the world. Beautiful, expensive women who are convenient for a quick date when I don't want to go to the occasional ball alone. But they don't know the real me. And they certainly don't own my heart." Max responded reflectively.

"Dating someone steadily for two years isn't quite the same thing."

"Perhaps." Max said with a nod of his head. "She doesn't make commitments lightly so one can only assume she really does love him." He brought his eyes back to Angel's face. "But is it the kind of love she's capable of?"

Max's straightforward probing question broke Angel's resolve as she locked eyes with his, her unspoken answer hanging in the air between them.

"Just what I thought." Max said quietly.

"And is love what you're looking for, Max?" Angel asked suddenly turning the tables on him slightly.

Max shrugged with a wry smile. "Aren't we all in some way or another?" He responded cryptically as he tried to deflect the conversation back to Liz. "What I think is so sad is that she's resolved herself to never even looking."

"Maybe because she thinks she's already found what she needs to look for." Angel said with very little confidence.

"Even you don't believe that." Max stated with a slight shake of his head.

"It doesn't matter what I believe. It matters what Kendall believes. And what she wants." Angel responded back quickly feeling as if she'd been caught somehow. Leveling him with her gaze, she began a course she hoped would help her determine what exactly they were dealing with. Who knows? It might even help him realize it too. "And what is it that you want, Max? Is it to love her…the real her. The one that she rarely lets anyone see?"

She waved her hand over the items on the table. "Or is all of this really just a game to you? The thrill of the chase. The challenge of getting to the woman playing hard to get?"

Max's gaze moved from Angel's face to concentrate on the hourglass on the table. Sensing she had his full attention even though he wasn't looking at her, Angel continued. "Don't get me wrong, Max. I like you. I really do. And there is a large part of me that believes that you are exactly what she needs. You were right. You two are very much alike. Much more than I think even you realize."

"But I wouldn't be able to call myself her friend if I didn't give you a word of caution. She simply doesn't have the luxury of risking her heart on a game of chance. So, if you're only in this for the thrill of victory at the end of the conquest, please do her a favor and walk away now before she starts to want something she can never truly have."

Max looked up at her sharply suddenly becoming aware of just how much it sounded like Angel knew about Liz's past. The protectiveness over the state of Liz's heart rang through loud and clear and he was alerted once again to the unknown's he'd still have to face if he continued this pursuit of Liz. Although her words were not meant to sting, he couldn't help but feel a pang of uncertainty about the direction he was heading. Did he really have any idea what he was jumping into? And if he didn't, was she really worth the risk?

And what about what risk he presented in this little two-step they were beginning? The past he was tugging along behind him like a dead weight? Wasn't that enough to warrant a quick retreat now before actual casualties began piling up?

Max bit his lower lip and shifted against the wall uncomfortably. "What if…what if I'm not sure where this is headed. I can't guarantee love for her, Angel. Until a week ago, I barely said the word myself. I'm only just now beginning to see the possibilities of this…whatever it is." Max shook his head slowly. "If you're asking for a lifetime, I can't give it. Not now. I'm not even sure if I ever can."

Angel leaned forward, her voice softening with understanding of his confusion. "Max, I'm not saying you have to know everything right now. Unless you have a crystal ball that goes with this hourglass, you can't see into the future. No one expects you to. I'm just saying that there are great treasures to be found in getting to know Kendall…in loving her. But there are also tremendously high stakes. For you and for her. One wrong bet and she can lose her world."

"If I'm going to encourage her to take that risk, I have to know it's worth it for her. Getting involved with her is not for the fainthearted, Max. Or the fickle. You need to know what you want before you go any further."

"Is that what you think I am? Fainthearted and fickle?" Max asked quietly as he looked up at Angel trying to read the expression in her eyes. Having discovered just how close Liz and Angel were…having seen it first hand…seeing it now in Angel's concern for Liz, Angel's opinion of him had become instantaneously important to him.

Angel shook her head as a slight smile came to her lips. "No, I think you're just the opposite. Which is precisely why I'm able to tell you these things. You've earned the right to know the way the cards are stacked before you ask for another hit…or before you decide to fold and walk away." Angel got up from the couch and headed toward the door stopping when she reached Max's side.

She reached out and touched his arm giving one parting word of advice. "Just be sure when you're ready to place the bet that you're willing to risk it all. She deserves nothing less than she'll have to give."

As Angel left him alone with his thoughts, Max closed his eyes and leaned his head back against the door, the weight of his next move pressing heavily on his heart.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
She grabbed the phone on the third ring. "Hello?"

"Hello, beautiful." The familiar voice came floating to her over the phone lines.

"Duke." She answered with a smile. "Please tell me this is a pleasure call and not about business."

He chuckled softly into the phone. "Sorry, darling. Business this time. But if you play your cards right..."

She sighed deeply as she eased herself onto the bed and pulled her feet up under her pushing her long dark hair away from her face. "The job would have to be lucrative."

"Obscenely. That's the only thing worthy of you."

She smiled into the phone. "You're such a sweet talker. But you know I'm already in the middle of a job. I really don't know if I can take on any more than I have right now..."

"You can do it. Trust me, McKenna." The voice said soothingly.

"I do, but..."

"This job will be the beginning of making all of your dreams come true. I promise." He stated with confidence.

Her brows furrowed as her mind drifted to the face of the raven-haired Adonis who haunted her dreams every night. Too bad Duke couldn't see her real dreams. On the other hand, it was better that he didn't. At least that way Max would be safe...

Tbc….
posted on 21-Oct-2001 6:02:36 PM
~ chapter 13 ~

Pulling her thoughts from the past, McKenna forced herself to focus on the current man in her life, her partner of sorts, and on the job he had waiting for her. "So, Duke. Tell me what this lucrative job is going to be and just how will it make my dreams come true."

She could almost envision him pursing his lips as her request met silence. When he finally answered it was with a question of his own. "How does finding your very own pot of gold strike you?"

McKenna's face scrunched in confusion and her green eyes narrowed warily. "Pot of gold? Duke, what are you talking about?"

"Your assignment. And the fortune it could bring us if we look toward the Emerald Isle."

"Ireland? You want me to go to Ireland?" McKenna let out a sigh. "You know I can't do that. I've told you, I'm in the middle of a job..."

"Ah, but that's the beauty of this job, my dear. You don't have to go anywhere. Your victim has actually come to you this time." Duke answered with a smile in his voice.

"My victim." McKenna smiled at Duke's use of term.

"Yes. Your victim." Duke repeated as a wicked gleam entered his eyes. "Actually, it might turn out he'll be more like your partner."

"My partner, huh?" McKenna nearly purred. "Why, Duke, I didn't know you'd be willing to share. So, tell me. Is he as handsome and clever as you? Or will I be pulling the weight of two on this little assignment you have planned for me?"

Duke's voice teased her through the line. "Now, McKenna. I thought you already knew no one is as handsome and as clever as me. Although, I have to admit, some might disagree with me about this particular gentleman rouge."

"Ohhh, a gentleman rouge. Stop now. I'm getting goosebumps." McKenna teased flirtatiously.

Duke's response was a warm chuckle. "Don't get any ideas, McKenna." He teased back. "If I even suspect you're falling in love with said rouge, I'll have him dispatched." His voice lowered to an almost cold tone as he added meaningfully, "And you know I'm capable of doing just that."

McKenna shuddered involuntarily as her thoughts immediately drifted once again to her past. Letting out a nervous chuckle, McKenna pushed her dark hair away from her face and answered back. "Don't worry, Duke. If I suspect I'm falling in love, I'll dispatch him myself."

Duke smiled once more. "That's my girl."

Breathing a sigh of relief, McKenna focused once more on the business at hand. "Alright, Duke. Don't keep me in suspense. Who is this Gentleman Rouge you speak so highly of?"

"I believe you've heard of him. His name is Max Evans..."
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Liz was tossing and turning in her bed once again in this never-ending struggle to get a good night's sleep. For some reason, she just couldn't get comfortable. Maybe it's the pillow. Yeah. That's it. First chance I get I'm going to get a new pillow. Liz punched her pillow in frustration and laid her head back down.

She turned over and wiggled into a new position. She lay there for a few moments. Sighed. Then changed positions again. Or maybe it's the mattress. No, maybe it's the bed. Yeah, it's got to be the bed. It's so...big. Much too big for one person. What in the world ever possessed her to get a King-sized bed anyway?

Maybe when she bought it she still believed in the dream that one day she would share it with someone. That with him in her arms it wouldn't feel so empty. But that was a long time ago and that dream had died right along with so many of her plans... So, why was it on her mind all of a sudden?

Her thoughts instantly jumped in the direction of the same raven-haired wolf that was literally making her life a living hell. Not that the jump was that hard to make. His handsome face with those piercing amber eyes was already appearing before her mind's eye when the size of her bed had come into question.

How was it each of her plans had managed to backfire since his arrival in Port Charles? Liz sighed again as she turned and gazed up into the darkness. No. That wasn’t quite right. Her plans hadn't really backfired...he'd just come up with a counter plan that blew hers away.

Like today. Or was it yesterday now? Liz looked at the steady red light on her nightstand. Two thirty six. Ok, so it was yesterday. He'd managed to take the disastrous copier incident she successfully executed and turned it into a brilliant idea to raise money for the center while exacting his revenge at the same time.

Claire told her they had managed to raise close to seven thousand dollars just from the tours alone. That wasn't mentioning the pledges they had received. Or the money Max agreed to kick in for the inconvenience of his little payback stunt.

On top of that, Max had paid the $500 the ad had promised to each of the first 100 customers and he had trained repairmen on hand to handle any and all repair calls. As far as the customers were concerned, her non-existent business was a huge hit. And as far as the Center was concerned, Max was their new hero.

Not to mention the hourglass stunt. That one had thrown her a curveball she wasn't expecting. She'd never dreamed he'd give her something so exquisite as his hourglass made just for him by a member of royalty. And his note. It struck a chord in her heart reviving a tune whose last beat had been played years ago. Or so she thought.

What a dirty trick for him to pull. To open a door she'd closed forever just enough for her to peek inside and see the beauty she was missing. Oh, he hadn't given her any assurances. There were no commitments. No proffers of love or even interest. Yet, his message held a note of promise to it. That he would be patient. That he would persevere. That in the end he would know victory by holding the treasure he sought in his hands.

Liz figured she could handle just about anything from him. This fun challenging little war they had going on. His ruthlessness. His cunning and cleverness. Yes, she could handle it all. Even the way he made her quiver inside with that intensely seductive gaze of his. She was strong enough to take anything he threw her way.

Anything that is except kindness. And sincerity. Even showing her his heart. No, she definitely couldn't handle seeing his heart. Not even in the smallest way. The moment she did would be the moment she'd be in real danger. It'd be the moment she'd lose her own.

And she'd been close today. When she'd opened his unexpected gift to her. Especially after what she'd done to him. In that one gesture he'd shown her a little bit of the real man behind the magazine articles and overheard rumors.

That's why she had to run. That's why she needed to escape. Back to a world where she could bury herself in the tragedy of other people's lives. Where she could be reminded that in comparison to others her life was full with friends and work that she loved. That she really didn't need anything more. Not even a second chance at love. Not even a chance...with Max.

Running hadn't helped though. Especially since the place she ran to wasn't the Center as she had originally planned. There was too much collective pain there for her to handle. Too many sorrows for her to try to heal. Especially when her own misery was pressing down all around her. Unable to find the smile she'd be forced to show, Liz turned the car in the direction of her little rented cottage instead.

And there, she was greeted by her patient, Kyle. Pain having lightened some, his bruises were darkening in color. Yet Kyle managed a teasing smile. Until he saw the remnants of her tears. With a few crafty comments and careful observation as Liz flitted around the room in agitation, Kyle…in his own special, twisted way…had Liz's situation pegged in no time…

"So, the boyfriend did something to upset you, huh?"

"No. My boyfriend isn't completely insensitive and totally irritating. Or insane." Liz shot back before muttering under her breath. "Unlike some wolves I know…"

A slow grin spread over Kyle's face and his blue eyes began to twinkle. "Ah. I see Someone's lit your fire and now you're trying to put out the flames, huh?"

"That's ridiculous." Liz rolled her eyes and let out a loud sigh as she turned to face him. "Did you not just hear me say that I have a boyfriend?"

Kyle shrugged. "What's your point?"

"Oh, God. Not you too." Liz shook her head in disgust and headed toward the kitchen with a load of dishes Kyle had been piling up. Less than thirty seconds passed when Liz emerged with a new fire blazing in her eyes. "For your information, my boyfriend and I have a wonderful relationship. He's sweet and thoughtful and caring and loyal and…and…"

"And duller than a flickering lightbulb is my guess. That's why this other guy is getting to you." Kyle took Liz's silence as confirmation of his assumption and continued. "Look, you shouldn't feel bad for having the hots for someone else. I mean, face it…if all relationships were all they were cracked up to be there wouldn't be divorces and affairs happening left and right." A crooked smile touched Kyle's lips. "Believe me, I've helped in my share of them so I know what I'm talking about."

"Oh, now there's a thing to be proud of." Liz quipped sarcastically as she sank down into a nearby chair and narrowed her eyes wondering how in the world they had gotten on such personal ground so fast. Especially with a stranger whose very presence in her life symbolized danger. Even more, since they'd agreed no questions, no answers.

Kyle chuckled lightly. "Look. It would happen with or without me. The women I meet that are looking for a fling are really looking for that fire and passion they once felt with their significant others. If they didn't get it from me, they'd keep looking till they got if from someone else. It’s the nature of the beast, Liz. Once you've felt passion…no matter how long you try to suppress the desire for it…it will always come back to haunt you. And the longer you keep it at bay, the stronger it'll be when it hits you again. And trust me on this…the boyfriend is never the one carrying the torch…"

Liz pushed her hair back behind her shoulders and leaned forward in the chair. "But what about commitment? Doesn't that stand for anything anymore?"

"Commitment? And passion? Together?" Kyle winced as he began to laugh. "Oh, that's funny."

"So, I take by your response you don't think they go hand in hand."

"Not from what I've seen."

"What a fatalistic view of love you have there..." Liz commented as she shook her head in disappointment.

"Love? Oh. Now, I didn't know we were talking about love." Kyle answered with a dismissive wave of his hand. "Love is something entirely different."

Liz wanted to scream at his apparent lack of logic but instead clenched her teeth and pushed out a question she was sure she would regret. Never in a million years did she think this obvious player would give her a new enlightening piece to her baffling puzzle. "How so?"

Blue eyes clouded with sincerity and Kyle's expression was thoughtful and full of remembrance. "Love bridges the two. Passion and commitment. With love in the middle, that's the only way they work together. And with that unique combination of the three…the relationship is untouchable. Fire can't burn it. Rain can't wash it away. Time will never steal its freshness. And dangerous storms will never shake the strong walls of its safe refuge. Love is all. All is love."

Swallowing hard, Liz blinked back the stinging that suddenly flooded her eyes. "That…that was beautiful…"

A light smile touched Kyle's lips. "My brother's words. It was a toast to our parents on their last anniversary." Kyle's gaze dropped and he began to absently finger the loose threads on the blanket covering his legs. "If anyone knows about love, its those three people. My parents, because of what they've held onto. My brother, because of what he's lost."

Letting out a sigh, Kyle's gaze raised to meet Liz's. "I guess all I'm saying is there's a reason you're feeling this sudden passion. It might be wise to take a good, long, hard look as to why its consuming you all of a sudden instead of trying to douse it with pails and pails of denial. Who knows? Maybe it's a test and it'll make you realize what you have with Mr. Loyal is what you want after all. Or maybe this 'wolf' that's putting fire in your eyes…well, maybe he's got the missing element for that untouchable relationship you've been looking for. Maybe…just maybe…if you give him a chance, he might…"

"Surprise me." Liz stated quietly as her gaze locked with Kyle's, her thoughts on an hourglass full of magical colors and a note revealing hidden dreams.

"Yeah. Surprise you…"


Surprises.

She had liked them at one time. Lived for them actually. Long, long ago when her girlish heart hammered with recklessness and freedom. Long before that same recklessness captured her in its vise-like grip and freedom was yanked from under her feet like a rug revealing a black hole of despair beneath her. The only thing that had pulled her from the endless emptiness had been the rescuing hand of an angel.

Angel. Liz smiled in spite of herself. After today, Liz was painfully aware that she'd have to start keeping an eye on that woman. She'd been enjoying herself a little too much at Max's prompting and Liz's expense.

That she found Max an amusing, charming man was apparent. That she wished for a union of sorts between her and Max was glaringly clear in her words and actions. In fact, she wondered if Angel was the one who had provided the picture of her that Max used on the flyer.

The flyer. Suddenly, Liz sat up in bed. "Why that little..." The darkness was her sounding board as a realization hit her. Liz flung the covers off of her, turned on her light and headed toward her desk. She began to rummage through a drawer and not finding what she was looking for she slammed it shut and pulled the next one out. She shuffled a few papers to the side with an exclamation. "A-ha! There it is!" She pulled out a packet of photos and held them up to the light.

Thumbing through them quickly, she found the one she was looking for. "I knew it!" Determination flashed in her eyes as a plan began to unfold in her mind. She ran to her closet, threw on a sweatshirt and sweatpants, grabbed her coat and keys and headed out the door, slamming it behind her.
~~~~~~~~
The penthouse was dark and still as she entered the front door and closed it behind her carefully. Stopping a moment to let her eyes grow accustomed to the darkness surrounding her, Liz then slowly began to tip-toe up the stairs.

Standing now in front of the door she'd coming looking for, she slowly opened the door pausing for a moment when it began to creak. She slipped through the opening and tip-toed to the bed lowering her face close to that of her victim.

She reached out and cautiously nudged the sleeping form of her best friend being careful not to awaken the person she was cuddled up next to. "Pssst. Wake up."

Her friend rolled over slightly, her blonde hair falling away from her still-closed eyes. She nudged her again. "Pssst. Hey, there. I really need you to wake up."

Her sleep induced friend let out a slight groan as she fully turned over and swung her arm. Liz jumped back just in time to miss being slapped in the head by the flying extremity. She waited a moment to make sure there'd be no other sudden movements then leaned down again. "Psssssssssst. Maria. Get up." She whispered a little more loudly this time and her nudge was a little less gently.

Without warning, Maria's eyes popped open and she bolted upright when she saw someone's face dangerously close to hers. In sheer terror she let out a scream as she grabbed her pillow and held it as if preparing to use it for a weapon. "AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!!!!!!!"

"AAAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!!!!!!!!!"
Liz yelled right along with her as she jumped and almost fell backward completely taken by surprise.

Once Maria' eyes had focused and her initial shock was over, she exclaimed loudly, "Kendall!!! Holy Toledo!!!!! Criminy, girl, what are you trying to do??? Give me a heart attack??"

"Shhhh!" Liz whispered loudly pointing toward Michael's still figure. "We don’t want to wake Michael."

Maria glanced over at him and dismissed Liz's concern with a wave of her hand. "Don't worry. We could put him on the highest roller coaster at Coney Island right now and he'd never wake up."

"I don't know, Maria. With that kind of protection, you might consider getting a guard dog or another husband. I could have been just anybody walking in here tonight." Liz commented flippantly.

"Trade my Mikey G in? Never! Believe me, chica, what he doesn't do while he's asleep, he makes up for while he's awake." Maria relaxed her posture and placed her pillow back in its rightful position as she eyed Liz. "Alright. Now, spill it. What are you doing here at..." she reached over and turned her clock to see the time. "...THREE AM?!?!"

Maria let out a groan and fell back onto her bed. "I swear, Kendall, this had better be good."

"I need your help." Liz launched into her plan without ceremony.

"For what? Counting the stars in the sky?"

"I need you to help me get Max back for what he did to me today...or rather, yesterday." Liz declared.

Maria propped herself up on her elbow and look at Liz like she'd completely lost her mind. "Are you nuts? You got me out of a very beautiful dream to help you plan another sabotage against Max?" Maria threw back the covers and picked up the phone.

Liz slammed her hand onto the cradle causing the dial tone to deaden in Maria' ear. "Who are you calling?" She hissed into the darkness.

"New Haven Mental Institution. Cuz, honey, you've definitely lost every last marble you might have possibly ever owned." Maria replied back hotly as she pointed a long fingernail in Liz's face.

Liz put her hands on her hips. "Are you saying you won't help me?"

Maria replaced the phone to its cradle. "That's what I'm sayin'."

Liz shook her head in disbelief. "Well. Some sort of best girlfriend you turned out to be!" She accused trying to pour on the guilt as she crossed her arms in front of her.

"Oh, so now my friendship's in question just cuz I won't help you win another point in this on-going war between you and Max?"

"No, it's in question because of whose side you're on." Liz shot back.

Maria rolled her eyes. "Look, if this is because I teased you about wanting him..."

"No." Liz said with a shake of her dark head. "It's because of this." She pulled out the photo of her that she'd found in her drawer. The same exact one that was used in the flyer. The picture that only one other person in the world possessed...Maria.

Maria grabbed the picture from Liz's hand and squinted her eyes for a closer look. Hazel eyes suddenly widened as realization dawned on her. "Oooohhh. Now, I see." She shrugged her shoulders and handed the picture back. "So, I gave him the picture..."

"Yeah. And now you won't help me. Which only leads me to one conclusion...you're on his side!"

Maria rolled her eyes. "Maybe the reason I gave him the picture was because he didn't ask me at THREE IN THE FREAKIN' MORNING!"

Liz dismissed Maria' words with a wave of her hand and a roll of her eyes. "Is that the problem? The time?" Liz reached over and flipped the covers off of Maria that she had returned to their rightful place over her tired body. "I really don't know what's happened to you, ya know? You used to be so much fun. In fact, you were the ultimate night owl."

"I became a mother. That's what happened to me." Maria responded back as she tried to make out Liz's movements in the dark. Liz had quickly turned toward Maria's dresser and pulled out a drawer. She reached in and grabbed a few articles of clothing then tossed them to Maria.

Maria stared down at the clothes that had just landed in her lap and sighed as she picked them up realizing that she had no other choice. "It'll happen to you too, ya know."

Her wide smile shone through the darkness as a vision took shape in her mind. She reluctantly began to dress as she spoke with a hint of laughter. "Yep, I can see it now. You and your hubby will put your twins, Jr. and Maria Louise--named for her godmother, of course--to bed then head off to bed yourselves for a private little 'playtime' of your own. You'll start getting' it on, climb into bed…he'll begin to nuzzle your neck and you'll...promptly fall asleep on his shoulder at the oh-so-late hour of...seven thirty."

"Oh, don't be ridiculous." Liz whispered from the depths of Maria's closet. "Max would never name a child of his 'Maxwell Adolphus Jr.'" Grimacing into the dark closet, Liz continued flinging items over her shoulder, oblivious to what she was saying. "Maxie. Adolph. God, the nicknames alone would be horrendous." She shivered absently at the thought before exclaiming victory. "A-ha! I found them." Liz pulled herself out of the closet with a matching pair of shoes in her hand.

Going to the bed she plopped them down in front of Maria who sat staring at her with the most amused look on her face. "For someone so organized I never would have believed it so difficult to find a matching pair of shoes in your closet. You really need to work on that..." Standing in front of her, Liz could faintly make out the expression on Maria' face. "What??" She asked as she put her hands on her hips.

Maria' smile widened perceptibly as her voice took on a teasing tone. "I never said anything about Max."

"So?" Liz asked defensively as realization began to dawn on her. What was it she had said? Something about Max never naming one of his kids after him? Oh, no. How in the world had that slipped out? And to Maria of all people. Now she'd never hear the end of it.

"So...you're the one who brought him up when I mentioned your hubby and kids." Maria started to laugh as she pointed an accusing finger at Liz. "Wow! You're already thinking about cute, little Maxie Jr's running around and you don't even realize it."

"I was most certainly not thinking of little Max Jr's running around. Believe me, one is more than enough. I was merely making a point..."

"Uh-huh. A point that had no business in this conversation except to you're mind." Maria laughed out loud. "Holy Toledo! You haven't even had your first kiss and you've already got yourself married to him with two children." Maria stated before a new idea struck her. A wicked laugh escaped her and her hazel eyes danced in the dim light of the moon streaming though the window. "Or...maybe you have had your first kiss and that's why the jump to 'playtime' was so easy to make. Wait till Max hears about this." She leaned forward her grown excitement was evident. "So, tell me...was he as hot as I thought..."

Liz clamped her hand on Maria' mouth and hissed into the darkness. "Maria Louise! Stop it! Max and I have not kissed! And don't you dare breathe one single word of what just happened to him! You got it? Not a word!" Maria tried to pull away but Liz held her firmly. "Got it?"

Maria nodded.

"Do I have your word on that?" Liz hissed again trying to make out Maria' expression to see if her nod was trustworthy or not.

Maria nodded her head again as her eyes began to twinkle with laughter. Liz slowly released Maria and started to back away as she looked down at the floor and began to shuffle her feet. The gesture was evidence of her embarrassed not only by the way her mouth seemed to be getting her into trouble lately by popping out things she'd rather keep to herself, but also by her sudden outburst. "So, are you going to help me or not?" Liz asked rather timidly.

"I'm getting dressed aren't I?" Maria asked back.

"Well...good." Liz said not quite sure what else she should say. "I'll...I'll wait for you downstairs." Liz turned and started to head out the door when Maria called out to her.

"Oh, Kendall, one more thing...did they have your ears or his?"

"Who?" Liz asked innocently.

"Max Jr. and Maria Louise." Maria's laughter erupted when Liz reached down and grabbed up a pillow that had fallen off the bed and hurled it at her before storming out the door to the sound of Maria's incessant chuckles.
~~~~~~~~~~
Later that morning, Liz waited impatiently by the window for a sign of Max's car. She paced in front of the window a few times, sat down at her desk, shuffled a few papers then popped up when she heard the sound of a car pulling into the parking lot. "Yes! There he is. It is now showtime!"

Liz rushed from behind her desk to the couch at the other end of her room. She bent over Maria' sleeping figure and began to shake her gently. "Maria. Wake up. He's here. Max is here. It's time."

Maria' eyes were still closed as she absently pushed Liz's hand away with a murmur. "Good for you. Maybe you can greet him with a kiss and get started on havin' those twins..."

"Maria. This is serious. I need you to go meet him." Liz said a little more loudly with a lot more frustration.

”You go meet him. I have a date with the Sandman." Maria growled as she turned her back on Liz.

Liz nudged her again. "Maria, you know I can't. Not after yesterday. Come on. You promised you'd help."

Maria sighed and turned over to look at Liz with one eye opened. "You're really determined to test our friendship today aren'tcha?"

"Please???" Liz pled not only with her voice but her eyes as well as her hands clasped in front of her in a sign of supplication.

Maria threw the multi-colored throw off of her and sat up with a sigh. "Alright. You'd just better remember this moment when you're namin' your first born daughter."

Liz jumped up and down then headed toward her desk. "Oh, thank you, Maria. I owe you one big time!"

"Yeah, yeah, yeah. I've heard that before." Maria teased as she stood up and checked herself in the mirror. "Alright. Where's the instructions?"

Liz came from around her desk and handed Maria a piece of paper. "Here. And remember...I'm too busy to meet with him today. Tell him I'm on the phone or in a meeting or something, but whatever you do, do not...I repeat…do NOT let him come in here."

Maria glanced from the list in her hands to Liz's anxious face. "You really that afraid of him?"

Liz waved off her comment with a grand hand gesture as she turned back around and headed for her desk. "Oh, please. I'm not afraid of him at all. I just..."

"What did he do to you yesterday when you went to find him?" Maria asked as she followed Liz to her desk. Liz stacked some papers nervously and grabbed up a pen becoming totally absorbed in her work.

"Kendall?" Maria prompted as her voice took on an edge of concern. From what she'd seen of Max so far, she liked him. And no matter how much she liked to tease Liz about him, she was also very aware of the effect Max had on her best friend and she wanted to be sure he wasn't overstepping his boundaries.

Liz sighed and glanced up at her realizing how silly her answer was going to sound. "Oh, it's no big deal, Maria. He just...he just gave me a gift that's all."

Maria blinked her eyes as if she hadn't heard properly. "He gave you a gift." Maria repeated incredulously her curiosity at an all-time high now. "What kind of gift?"

Liz looked down at her papers and shrugged the importance of Max's gesture away. "Oh, nothing much. Just an extremely beautiful hourglass that Princess Diana gave to him a long time ago."

"WHAT?" Maria practically yelled. "He gave you something that Princess Diana gave him?? Well, where is it? I want to see."

Liz shook her head as she said quietly. "Probably in his cottage. I...I didn't accept it."

"YOU WHAT??" Maria' voice was at an all-time high. Liz quickly shushed her reminding her where she was. Maria watched Liz's face flush slightly and instantly understood the reason for her reluctance to see him today. "Oh, I get it. Aww, man. It's all makin' sense now. You don't want ta see him cuz you don't want him knowing how much his gift meant to you. And you're afraid he'll be able to see it the second he takes one look at you. That's it! Isn't it?"

"Don't be ridiculous." Liz stated curtly as she got up from her chair and began to file some cases in her file cabinet. "I simply don't have time to deal with Max and his little...shenanigans today.

"Right." Maria crossed her arms in front of her as an air of disbelief wrapped around her. "But you had time to deal with them all last night and most of this morning, didn'tcha?" Maria teased as her eyes began to sparkle.

Liz turned on Maria suddenly. "Look, if you really don’t want to help me with this then fine. I'll just do it myself. I'm not afraid to face the man, if that's what you're implying..." She walked over to Maria and held out her hand. When Maria made no move, Liz prompted her. "Well, give me the list. I'll go talk to him. He probably needs to be rescued from V by now anyway."

Sensing that Liz was forcing more confidence into her little speech than what she actually felt Maria shook her head. "Oh, just relax. I won't make you face the Big Bad Wolf today. But don't say I didn't warn ya. You can run as much as ya want, but eventually you're gonna have to face him and these feelings he brings out in you." Maria patted her on the arm before turning and leaving the room.

"That's what I'm afraid of, Maria." Liz said with a sigh as she heard the clicking of Maria' heels head down the hall. "That's what I'm afraid of."
~~~~~~~~
"Hiya, Max." Maria said as she came up to Max in the lobby stifling a yawn as she did so. She could tell by his posture that V had been desperately trying to keep his attention by rambling on about some incident that had kept her from making it to work on time. Unfortunately for V she was failing miserably.

"Hey, Maria. You look as tired as I feel." Max said as he turned to her with a weary yet relieved smile.

Maria eyed him carefully. He looked resplendent in a navy blue suite with a goldish-brown tie that set off the amber hues of his eyes. Boy was this guy going to have to learn not to wear suits when he came here. Not a lock of dark hair was out of place and his manner was one of ease and comfort.

To the casual observer he was untouched by the cares of the world. But looking in his eyes one would have the impression of a man barely hanging on. "Trouble sleeping? Seems it's becoming an epidemic lately." Maria commented more to herself when she saw Max's slight nod of his head.

Trouble sleeping. Boy, was that an understatement. He'd gotten practically no sleep last night. After forcing himself to concentrate on work in the afternoon and finding out from Barbara that the EMG board meeting had been moved back a day, Max had decided he couldn't just sit around anymore.

So, he'd taken a drive. A long, hard, fast drive. With the wind blowing through his hair and the radio blasting out a thumping beat, Max took his frustrations out on the unfamiliar road. Each unexpected curve was followed by the sound of his screeching tires and every hill was a ramp to sail over. He ruled the two lanes alone. His mind was numb. His heart pounding so wildly that he could hear the blood rushing in his ears.

And he liked it that way. It gave him the sense of recklessness and freedom that he craved with a passion. No rules had been made that he wasn't breaking. No laws he wasn't defying. No danger he wasn't taunting. On that road there was nothing to tie him down. No one to hold him back.

No one to hold him. Period. No one…at all.

His past rose before his mind and a fresh wave of frenzy took over his driving. His foot pushed the pedal to the floor. The music became deafening. And the tears began to blur his vision. At some point, Max found himself pulled over along a bluff. Standing at the edge, hands tucked in his pockets and his eyes dulled with pain, Max felt the cool wind whip around him. Settling over his shoulders. Wrapping around his body. Making him strangely warm in the midst of its chill.

An ironic smile touched his lips as one thought gripped his mind: the cold, harsh wind…my only true friend.

Max returned to the cottage with more weight on his shoulders than when he'd left. And when he shifted endlessly in his bed that night, fighting the haunting memories for control, Angel's words and Liz's tears kept coming back to his mind no matter how hard he tried to banish them from his thoughts. She'd cried one too many times for his tastes since his arrival in New Haven. If his presence was only going to cause her pain, then he only had one choice even though his heart cried out to him that he couldn't possibly walk away.

The weight of his questions about Liz's past and his impending decisions regarding his immediate future had him tossing and turning with no intention of letting him rest. Right now all he wanted to do was see her smile. No matter what it took...even if it meant his absence...he needed to see the beauty of her happiness. Only then would he know what to do. Only then could he walk away with a clear conscience. "Uh, is Kendall in? I really need to talk to her."

Maria nodded her head as she narrowed her eyes. Yep. He'd lost sleep over Kendall. There was no doubt about it. His eyes said too much when he spoke her name for it not to be the case. "She is, but she's on the phone right now. Then after that I think she said she had a meeting. In fact, she asked me to give you your assignment for today."

The disappointment that clouded Max's eyes was unmistakable. "Oh, I see." So, that was the plan, huh? Run to the safety of work so she didn't have to face him. He knew that trick all too well. If she wasn't ready to face him right now, so be it. But he wouldn't let her get away with it forever. He covered his disappointment quickly with a winning smile. "Well, then I guess I'll just have to catch up to her later. Lead the way."

Maria led Max to a pair of swinging double doors. Pushing them aside she stepped into the kitchen with a grand gesture. "Here's your assignment."

Max walked in behind her with a raised eyebrow. "The kitchen? What does she want me to do...wash dishes?"

Maria laughed at the expression on Max's face. "Well, kinda. I mean, you don't actually have to wash them yourself. Just turn the knob on the dishwasher to start it. What she really needs you to do is cook breakfast though." Maria glanced at her watch. "In fact, you'd better get a move on if it's going to be ready in time."

"In time?" Max turned from the clean, safe kitchen to face her. "For what?"

"There's a board meeting and they always have breakfast provided."

"But I thought Claire said the board meeting was tomorrow morning..." Max started but was interrupted by the quick shrug of Maria' shoulders.

"I don't ask. I just follow orders." She said in response to his quizzitive look.

Max's eyes narrowed. "Why do I get the feeling something's not right here?"

Maria shrugged her shoulders with an I-can't-imagine-where-you-could-have-picked-that-up look on her face. "Maybe you're just paranoid."

"Riiiight. And maybe I'm becoming wise from experience." Max took a few hesitant steps into the kitchen and looked around. Well, everything looked safe. But everything had looked safe the other day too. Turning back to Maria he asked. "Are you sure this isn't another one of her stunts?"

Maria brightened with a pretty smile and patted him on the shoulder as she gently led him toward the counter at the far end of the room. "What's this? Have ya lost your sense of adventure all of a sudden?"

"In other words...this is another one of her stunts." Max quipped with a wry smile as he thrust his hands in his pockets.

"Now what would be the fun in me tellin' ya that? Huh?" Maria asked without answering his question. "Besides...aren't you curious to see what she has planned just for you...if anything at all? Or has all that lost sleep left you unequal to the challenge?"

The wariness in Max's eyes didn't diminish with Maria' statement. In fact, it only increased his sense of impending doom. He had absolutely every reason in the world to walk out that door and never encounter Liz's plan. Then again, Maria was right. What would be the fun in that? Besides, he had a point he needed to prove to Liz...if not to himself.

"Alright." Max shook his head in unbelief before letting out a sigh. "I can't believe I'm actually doing this..." He took off his suit jacket and tie and handed them to Maria. "Can you please make sure this gets to a safe place just in case anything blows up on me?"

Maria chuckled uncomfortably. If he only knew the half of it...

She quickly consulted the list Liz gave her. "Alright. They'll need coffee, toast and they'll need freshly squeezed orange juice. The juicer is over there on the counter. If you could make about 14 scrambled eggs that should cover them all. Oh and there's a loaf of bread in the bread maker. That's not for breakfast, but we'll use it at lunch." Maria handed him the instructions Liz had written down. "It's not really that difficult. Kendall even wrote the instructions out for you."

Max shook his head in disbelief as he looked at the list. Since when does a corporate raider cook breakfast for the board of directors of a children's home? Since a certain beautiful enchantress put a spell on you, that's when.

"Ya set?" Maria asked as she watched him with curiosity as he looked over the list. What an interesting man. He knew Liz had something planned for him, and he probably guessed it wouldn't be a beautiful hourglass. Yet he had willing stepped into the ring to take whatever she was getting ready to dish out. He must really be hooked. Or crazy. There was simply no other explanation for it.

Max nodded absently. "Yeah, I've got it."

"Great! Oh, here's an apron for you." I'm sure you're gonna need it. Maria tossed an apron to him as she headed for the door.

Max caught it mid-air and looked at it with growing anxiety. His voice wavered uncertainly as he called out to her holding up the apron. "Uh, Maria...hey, is this some kind of hint or something?"

The echo of Maria' laughter filled the room as she headed down the hall leaving Max alone with one burning question...

What in the world was he still doing here?

Tbc…

posted on 21-Oct-2001 6:04:10 PM
~ chapter 14 ~


"Kyle." Alex's voice was dripping with sarcasm as he spoke into his recently answered phone. "I know I'm the kind of guy everyone loves to converse with 24/7, but two phone calls within two days is a bit on the abnormal side for you. What's up? Another problem with Max?"

"No, actually. There are no new developments to report on that front." Kyle sighed into the phone and glanced down at the item in his hand wondering if he should really do what he was about to ask.

As silence greeted him, Alex rolled his eyes. "Dude. You gonna talk to me or just keep my phone locked up all day?"

Clearing his throat, Kyle finally made a decision. "Uh..yeah. Sorry. Look, there's this person I want you to check out for me. It's a woman. She's very…intriguing."

Oh, great. Here we go again. What is it with these Evans boys and these illusively intriguing women… "Uh-huh. And I'm assuming she's beautiful."

"Very."

"And…what? She's rejected your advances and you want to…"

"No. No, it's not really like that." Kyle let out another sigh as he ran a hand through his hair. "Look, she's been helping me out but she won't tell me anything about herself. All I know is her name and that she has a really, really amazing taste in music."

Alex started to chuckle. "Music? You're wanting to run a check on someone because you like her choice of music? And you've not got a little crush. Right."

"Look, Alex, I'm serious." Kyle held up a cd case in front of him. "I found this cd and went to listen to it. It's unreal. The voice is just…" Kyle swallowed back his gushing praise knowing how damaging it would sound to Alex, who assumed Kyle wanted to do anything in a skirt. "The point is that this cd…it has no name on it. Nothing to identify the singer, producer, record label. Nothing. Not even a title. But there's something familiar about the voice. I think…I think it might be this angel of mine that's been helping me. So, I was wondering if you could…"

Alex groaned. "Alright. Send it to me. I swear I should charge finder's fee for this dating service I've suddenly become."

"What?"

Rolling his eyes, Alex shook his head. "Nothing." Pulling out a piece of paper, Alex readied his pen. "Alright. Give it to me. Where did you find this angel?"

"Where I am now. Near New Haven."

Hmmm. What a coincidence. That's where Max's angel is from… "Ok. And your angel's name is…"

"I only know her first name."

Another impossible sigh. God, this is starting to sound way too familiar. "O.K. Give me the first name."

"Liz."

Alex dropped his pen and squeezed his eyes shut. Liz? As in…Max's Liz? Damn. No. Make that triple damn. "Got it." Alex choked out. "Look, I'll get back to you. Right now, I've got to go. So…over."

"…and out."

Alex replaced the handset and stared at it for the longest time in contemplation of the ironies of life. That both Max and Kyle were asking him to find out who this Liz woman was…well, it was…unnerving. Dropping his head, he banged it a few harmless times against the top of his desk. "Why me???" He groaned out loud then took a deep breath, picked up the phone and dialed a number. "Yeah. It's me. Alex. I need the phone number for Sheila Cobb…again..."

As the operator searched for the number, Alex let out another sigh and mumbled under his breath. "Ok, guys. I'll find her for you, but I’m not responsible for any broken bones...or hearts..afterward…"
~~~~~~~~~
In no time, Max had things cooking…literally. Well...almost literally. He'd pulled out the dishes and silverwear for all 7 board members. He had the eggs cracked and waiting to sizzle in the frying pan. The bread was ready to be placed in the toaster and oranges were sitting on the counter peeled and waiting to be squeezed.

Before starting his meal preparations, Max warily moved to the dishwasher his hand pausing hesitantly over the knob before he took a deep breath, closed his eyes and turned it. He then breathlessly waited a moment to make sure it wasn't going to explode on him. Hearing it safely humming away, Max let out a relieved sigh and a wide grin before nodding with satisfaction and moving on to his next assignment. Good. One potential disaster avoided. Several to go.

He reached for the coffee strainer and placed a filter inside then tore open a packet of coffee grinds and poured them into the middle. Replacing the holder, Max turned the coffee machine on and ran water from the sink into an empty coffeepot. After pouring the water into the machine he turned with a satisfied smile to his next order of business.

The toast. He grabbed up 4 pieces of toast and plopped them down into the toaster, checked the settings and pushed the button. So far, so good. Maybe he really was being paranoid. Maybe her revenge would be making him fear her next move. Yeah. That was probably it. After all, what could she really do to him? She really wasn't that good.

Max shook his head and chuckled at the anxiety he'd felt over his own overly-active imagination. Yeah, there wasn't much she could do him here. He was safe. He was sure of it. Maria had been too...obvious…about it all. This was just Liz's way of faking him out. And it almost worked. Good plan if he didn't say so himself.

He next headed to the juicer sitting ready to make orange juice. He grabbed up his first orange, sliced it in half and laid both sections in the juicer. Then he took up his second and third continuing the same procedure. When the appliance was full, Max replaced the top and nonchalantly pushed the 'on' button with a cocky grin.

Suddenly, there was a momentary flicker of lights. Smile fading, Max warily glanced up at the ceiling light fixtures with an instant sense of foreboding. As he was contemplating whether to turn the juicer off, a horrendous knocking sound came from the direction of the dishwasher to his right. Max stepped back from the counter and eyed the machine suspiciously. Within two seconds, the washer began shaking violently causing its movements to appear as if it were walking it's way out of its' resting place against the wall.

Max jumped back and grabbed the first thing he could lay his hand on, which in this case was a spatula. Holding it up in front of him as if it were a sword, Don Quixote fighting that infamous windmill suddenly came alive in Max's person. "Uh-huh. Don’t you even dare come closer." Max warned the now animate piece of metal. "I don't know what she did to you, but you are not going to win! Not this time!"

Max inched his way around the advancing foe and was just within arms reach of turning the off knob when a popping sound caused him to jerk his head to the left. Having instantaneously located the source of the sound, Max saw that the juicer was dangerously close to losing its lid. Max started to dive for it just as the lid blew off the top spewing orange juice and pulp upwards and into Max's face.

"AAAAAA!" Max yelled as he jumped back and immediate grabbed his apron wiping the juices from his face and eyes. He shook his head in anger. "I'm going to kill her." Max said with every ounce of frustration he had in his body to spare.

He quickly turned the juicer off and headed back toward the dishwasher, which was now beginning to foam at the mouth like a rabid dog, just as the smell of smoke reached his nostrils. He glanced around to see where the source of the foul smell was when he saw smoke curling up from the toaster.

Torn between the animated dishwasher and the smoking toaster, Max quickly made it to the toaster figuring it was the path of least resistance and one that wouldn't have the desire to run him over. Max hit the lever to make the bread pop up, but it didn't budge. He pulled on it hoping the opposite motion would supply the desired response. It still didn't budge. In frustration Max slammed his hand against the side at which time the blackened bread popped out of the top, flew through the air and landed with a dull thud on the floor.

Max breathed a sigh of relief. A feeling that lasted only a split second. Just when he thought things couldn't get worse, Murphy's Law was enforced and arrested his immediate attention as a sizzling sound alerted Max to the fact that the coffee was done. Not only was it done, it was shooting out like a fountain in several directions from the plastic filter he'd poured the grinds into.

Max lunged toward the sprouting machine and flipped the switch off grabbing a few coffee cups and holding them in front of the streaming black liquid hoping to catch as much as he could before it all flowed to join the growing puddle on the floor.

As soon as the flow of coffee eased, Max dumped the coffee cups and turned once more to the dishwasher, which by this time had moved as far from the wall as its cord would allow. Soft bubbly suds had not only surrounded it by this time but were threatening to engulf the lower half of the beastly machine. Max eased his way toward the wall and carefully reached over to unplug the cord effectively ending the dishwasher's short rebellious life.

Max leaned against the counter and closed his eyes breathing a deep sigh of relief as near silence filled the room. His mind was whirling with everything that had just happened and he wondered just how in the world she'd managed to pull everything off. Oh, she was good. That's one thing he'd never question or take for granted again. And how he'd allowed himself to get sucked in…once again. It had to be the memory of those eyes. And furthermore, how he was going to top this one in paybacks? This was going to be a tough one...

A bubbling sound suddenly reached his ears and broke through his thoughts.

Max groaned out loud as his eyes popped open in disbelief. The bread maker was oozing a yellowish substance that Max could only guess was the dough he was sure Liz had rigged to explode somehow. At this point, Max just threw his hands up in frustration, letting out a frustrated yell to no one in particular. "Ok! OK! I give up! You win!" He reached over and quickly unplugged the bread maker just barely diverting another disaster before turning to look at the damage Liz's machinations had caused.

There was coffee on the floor that had been joined by soggy burnt toast, suds that were beginning to melt into water puddles, orange juice plastered to the walls and counter and the remains of bubbling bread dough. He shook his head furiously. "Alright, Liz, if you think I'm going to clean this up..."

Max had had enough. He angrily undid the apron he'd been wearing and tossed it on the counter. Then he abruptly turned and headed toward the door. Just as he reached the swinging door and raised his hand to push it forward another force caused it to fly back and hit him square in the shoulder knocking him back and sending him to the floor.

That cause was no other than a little urchin about seven years old. A little urchin that Max instantly became acquainted with...up close and personal. The force of the door flying open was due to the child running into it with no intention of stopping. Which made his mad dash all that more difficult when his feet encountered Max's prostrate body.

The little boy tripped over Max's feet and landed with a thud on his legs sending the hot bowl of oatmeal he'd been carrying flying through the air to land on Max's pants, front and center. "Aaahhhh!! Owww!"

"Dylan! Dylan where are you?" Liz's voice sounded at the door just as Max and Dylan collided. She threw open the door and stood in shock at the scene before her. Max scrambled to his feet and was quickly wiping the hot oatmeal from the front of his pants, appearing to do a little jig, all the while trying not to step on the little boy who was trying his best to get untangled from Max's legs.

"Damn!" Max exploded as he tossed the towel to the side, his sudden movement causing his foot to slip on the oatmeal that had fallen on the floor and sent him to greet the tile once more...this time face down.

"Oh my God! Max! Max. Are you ok?" Momentarily forgetting their little war, Liz rushed to his side as instant concern mixed with a hint of laughter in her voice.

Max tightly closed his eyes and lay still for a moment mentally taking inventory of his body parts. Man, it’s a good thing I work out regularly. If I didn't, this little fiasco would have probably put me in the grave… Besides the bruise he knew he'd have on his knee and probably his shoulder, Max figured this was one Liz-induced catastrophe he'd manage to live through...so far. Didn't mean he couldn't milk the situation a little. In fact, he was entitled to do just that. After all, she had sounded genuinely concerned...

"Kendall?" Max asked in a weakened voice as if he were in a lot of pain. He reached his hand out to her slowly.

"I'm right here, honey. What is it? Where does it hurt?" Liz absently commented without thinking what she was saying as she grabbed his outstretched hand with one of hers and leaned forward. Liz's concern overshadowed her amusement as her other hand absently, repeatedly feathered comfortingly through his tousled hair.

Max's eyes took on a wicked sparkle as he noted the tender endearment that had flowed so easily from her lips. His chestnut eyes fluttered closed as he momentarily took comfort in Liz's instinctive, gentle touch and released a shaky sigh of contentment. Her soft caress sent tingles through his body just like her absently uttered word jolted a heart that had been asleep for too long, wide awake. Ah. Heaven.

He was tempted to stay this way forever. But even with her electric touch and the warmth his body was suddenly experiencing, Max knew lying on the floor face down would never accomplish his goal. Not to mention, it would get painfully uncomfortable after a while. Especially considering the bodily reactions just the light scraping of her nails against sensitive skin as her fingers raked through the hair that curled adorably right behind his ear.

Rolling onto his side, Max winced as he looked up into her eyes so full of concern for his pain, finally answering her question. "Where? Well...let's just say it looks like we're going to have to start later than expected on that family of 10 I have planned, Honey."

Seeing the unmistakable twinkle of mischief in his eyes, Liz blinked her eyes in response and her brows furrowed in brief confusion as her mind quickly scanning her comments for damaging evidence. 'Honey.' Damn. Damn. Damn. Liz, girl, you are so going to have to watch that mouth of yours… Quickly dropping Max's hand in embarrassment and disgust at her own slip, Liz pushed him in the shoulder causing Max to cringe with pain despite his bubbly laughter at the expression on her face. He'd caught her red-handed...and they both knew it.

"Aaaarrrggghh! You're...you're impossible! You know it?" She said in frustration as she got up from his side and quickly took in the scene around her trying to divert her attention to anything but the past few moments and the way her heart had lurched unexpectedly in her chest when she thought he'd been hurt. "Would you just look at the mess you've made!" Liz said in exasperation now that she was aware Max was perfectly fine.

Max moved to a sitting position, his eyes wide when his gaze snapped up to meet hers. "Me? You blame me for all of this?" Max asked with instant surprise as his hand made a wide sweep of the room.

"I most certainly do." Liz said as her hands came to rest on her hips and her cheeks burned with embarrassment and annoyance at his previous good humor. She reached for anything within her emotional grasp to fight the raging desire to let all of her guards down and join him in merriment.

There was certainly a lot to laugh at. Starting with Max's appearance. He was sitting in the middle of a soapy sticky floor with orange juice stains splattered all over his white shirt. His pants were smeared with the remains of Dylan's breakfast of oatmeal and his hair was slightly damp from the exploding juicer. And to top it all off, on the very top of his head was a small pile of white, foamy bubbles that had clung in contrast to his dark hair when he fell.

Liz looked away quickly as forced the breath in her chest to stop the bubble of laughter that was building inside, cold at the sight. Laughing with this man would definitely be the death of her. Not that laughter was bad. Or that she never had fun. But here, now, with this amazingly irresistible man, it would be the first step in letting go…and letting go with Max Evans was just simply not a possibility. She instinctively knew letting go with Max would take her higher than she'd ever dreamed…and bring her crashing down lower than she'd ever been when it ended. She simply couldn't allow that. It would destroy her to lose so much this time…

Liz's voice hardened with determination as she forced her gaze to take in the rest of the kitchen. "Just what is the meaning of all this?"

Remembering his earlier anger, instant fire flashed in Max's eyes when he literally watched the walls of stubbornness go back up in her eyes. "Unbelievable." Shaking his head, Max muttered under his breath as he carefully rose to his feet and pointed an irritated finger at Liz. "Now, you just wait a damn minute here. The only reason there is such a mess is because of you. And don't you dare try to deny it." Max added as Liz's mouth opened to voice a protest.

Liz crossed her arms in front of her and quickly bit down on her lower lip again trying to hold back her rising desire to laugh when she allowed her eyes to meet his. Max looked absolutely adorable with the way his hair was all tousled from running his hands through it. The frustration that he'd been through in the last half hour alone was shooting directly from his eyes and for some reason his annoyance made him appear downright sexy to Liz. Maybe it was all of those strong raw emotions she saw flitting through those expressively, chestnut eyes of his. Whatever it was it sent a sudden shocking currents of desire rushing through her. Which was a pretty dangerous thing to be feeling at this point. She needed to put distance between them even if she had to play on his rising irritation and anger to get it.

"Well. This is certainly rich. All I did was asked you to do one simple thing. Make breakfast and turn one little knob on the dishwasher and instead you've created absolute chaos. Guess I'll just have to show you where the cleaning supplies are and hope you don't make a mess of that too." Liz turned toward the door but was stopped by Max's outburst.

"Absolutely not!" Max's voice echoed through the room with determination. "I will not clean up a mess that you created. Yes. You." Max confirmed when he saw Liz spin toward him, her eyebrow raised in mock-surprise. "Let's get one thing straight. I have no problem with this little game we're playing. It's actually been quite challenging and…fun…on some level, although I'm not quite sure what that says about me. But I will not clean up your messes. Just like I won't let you clean up mine."

Max let out a frustrated sigh as he turned his back on her trying to get control of his anger that had made its way to his voice. This wasn't right. The last thing he wanted to do was fight with her today. Even though his hands were on his hips when he turned back to her, his eyes softened as they cut to her face before he launched into a subject he was sure she would resist discussing. The subject that had brought back haunting images to his own mind. The one that had kept him up most of the night. "For instance, I won't let you clean up the mess I made of things yesterday…"

Liz had been watching him carefully and her stomach tied in knots instantly when she saw the look on his face. She knew he was going to bring up his gift to her and that was one thing she knew she wouldn't be able to discuss without showing him too much of the heart she was trying to hide from him. And just how much he'd touched it yesterday.

"Oh, please, Max. You didn’t create a mess." She quipped sarcastically trying to cut him off. "Don't you know? You became the Center's hero yesterday. You should feel quite proud of the work you did. You managed to raise money for us all the while sticking it to me." She tilted her head to the side and raised an eyebrow. "Then again, I guess it's just all in a day's work for you isn't it?"

A momentary flash of pain entered Max's eyes as he looked away then back at her again. Liz wanted to sink right into the floor. Why did she have to say something so mean to him? Why couldn't she just thank him and be on her way? Why? Because no matter what she didn't want to walk away. But she couldn't bear to allow his kindness to touch her heart either so she put up the protective wall of insults and jabs so that he'd be the one to walk away first. That way the leaving would be his choice and not hers. That way, he just might walk away before she began to feel too much, too soon.

"Is that really what you think all of this is to me?" Max asked suddenly, his voice marked by injured annoyance. As much as he hated to admit it, maybe the answer he'd been searching for all night was staring him right in the face. And what he saw was certainly not what he'd been hoping for.

"I know this is all this is to you. Oh, sure you're having fun, but it's all at our expense." She pursed her lips and cast her glance upward in thought. "No, let me rephrase that." Eyes snapping back to meet his, Liz crossed her arms in front of her. "It's all at my expense. And I have no doubt the second you get what you want, you'll walk out that door and never look back." Liz challenged hoping in her heart of hearts that she was wrong even though she couldn't admit it to herself..

"Is that what you want? For me to walk away and never look back?"

The question was asked so softly Liz almost didn't hear it. Even if she hadn't heard the actual words with her ears, she would have heard them with her heart. The sudden, little-boy vulnerability in Max's eyes caused her eyes to flicker with emotions she couldn't…wouldn't…acknowledge. And that hard shell that encased her heart felt the tiniest rumble when Max's gaze faltered uncertainly.

"No." Liz didn't even recognize her own whisper. Even when she felt her own mouth open and saw a gentle glow of relief lighting Max's eyes as his eyes slowly raised to meet hers. Stiffening her back, she cocked an eyebrow at him and donned an air of nonchalance in an effort to ward off any conflicting signals she knew she had to be tossing Max's. "At least not until you clean up your mess."

Max dropped his head in momentary silence and Liz wasn't quite sure what his reaction would be when his gaze finally returned to hers. For that matter, neither did Max. A battle being waged within his heart. A battle to take offence. Or take up the slack she'd just offered him. With this woman, it looked like Max was going to take every little give every little bit she willingly tossed him and load up on a ton of patience as he coaxed the rest out of her till his goal was finally reached.

A sudden chuckle escaped him and his head began to shake as his eyes raised to meet hers once more, completely devoid of any pain or haunting emotions that struck an ancient chord deep in Liz's heart. He was back to having fun. Back to pursuing his goal. Back to playing the game. "You are some piece of work, Kendall Blake."

Liz swallowed hard and braced herself. She'd seen the light of desire flash in Max's eyes and recognized the ready-for-anything stance his body had taken as he flashed her a quick grin. He was back on his game now. Back to being flirty and mesmerizing and enchantingly aloof as he tucked his heart safely away from Liz's view. Just the way Liz wanted it…

Taking a careful step forward, a slow smile claimed his lips and his eyes roamed her face greedily. "You rig the kitchen to literally explode on me then you actually have the guts to stand there and act like you had nothing to do with it." Max stopped just in front of her and leaned dangerously close pulling her gaze upward to meet his as his voice lowered meaningfully. "The more I get to know you the more I think I have definitely met my equal."

Taking a slight step back, Liz crossed her arms in front of her and defiantly raised her chin struggling to ignore the comedic presence in front of her and address only the adversary underneath the mess she'd created. "Make that your better."

An amused smile brought a quick light to Max's eyes. "Perhaps." He agreed as he eyed her carefully. "See, today's stunt shows just how devious your mind can work. I like that because I can be devious at times myself. In fact, I probably would have thought of something like this if I had the necessary skills to follow through. You, on the other hand, not only thought of it, you executed it with amazing talent and finesse. Like an orchestra, not a single appliance failed to follow your command."

Liz blinked a couple of times not sure what to make of Max's words. This was certainly not the reaction she'd been going for. In fact, his earlier anger was what she'd been prepared for. What she could handle. She wasn't quite sure what to do with…this…though. He almost sounded…impressed. "So, let me get this straight..." Liz started uncertainly. "...you're not...you're not mad that it happened?"

Max shook his head and chuckled as he saw his unexpected reaction beginning to work on her. "Why should I be mad? I knew something was up when I walked in here. I entered the war zone willingly. In all honesty, I'm rather...awed...by your skills. I mean, first the copier, now kitchen appliances."

"It makes me wonder what other..." Max stepped closer still and ran a finger lightly down her cheek to her chin tilting her face slightly upward and sending a shiver through her. A shiver that didn't go unnoticed by Max. Especially since it was so strong he thought he could feel the ground shake beneath his feet with the force of it. He continued as an acknowledging twinkle entered his eyes and his voice lowered seductively, his gaze lowering to Liz's slowly parting lips and scorching them with the intensity of his gaze. "...talents you might be hiding."

Liz slowly let out a shaky breath that she didn't know she'd been holding since Max had stepped closer to her and her eyes fluttered shut briefly. Her senses were in full overload. He was so close to her, in fact, that she could smell the mixture of the soap he'd used that morning to shower and the breakfast surrounding him. And she could feel him. The heat radiating from his body. The powerful presence that engulfed her like a storm just waiting to rage with all its magnificent wonder. And seeing him. His broad shoulders were just inches away and she had a sudden urge to let her hands attack him, running up his well-toned chest to wrap around his neck and pull his perfectly bowed lips against hers.

It would be explosive. Wild. Reckless. A kiss full of all the fire he'd created in her with one simple touch of his finger against her skin. Or one look in her eyes…

As if desperately trying to catch herself from falling too far into the sea of his warm chocolate eyes, Liz took a deep breath and backed away again placing more distance between them this time and instantly pushing her hair nervously behind her ears. Her mind raced feverishly for something to say then stopped abruptly when she heard her mouth utter words that shocked her with the pure suggestiveness of her tone. "Not all of my talents are hidden, Max. I'm sure you've figured that out by now."

Max's smile deepened as his eyes began shining even more brightly, if that were at all possible. "Oh, believe me, they haven't gone unnoticed. In fact, I'd go through all of this again..." Max gestured toward the kitchen behind him. "...just to experience the talent you displayed by uttering that one word earlier."

Liz cleared her throat uncomfortably before venturing into a realm she knew with all of her heart was dangerous, but completely unable to resist. "What...uh, what word?"

"Honey." Max answered softly as he gazed at her intently. "The way it shot from your lips to land with a sweet pang in my heart would have put one of Cupid's arrows to shame."

Liz colored visibly and Max was amused to see her biting her lower lip as the wheels began turning in her head searching for a reasonable explanation why she would have called her 'enemy' such an endearing term. Oh, this one was definitely going to be good.

Liz pushed her hair back and began to stutter through her explanation. "I...I hate to...um...disappoint you. But..." She crossed her arms in front of her in an effort to give her words some visible support and cleared her throat. "...but I often...say that word when I'm...when I'm working with the children..."

"Really." Max said clearly not believing her.

"Yes, really." She said defensively. "And since you've been acting like one since the second you stepped foot in the door…I'm thinking that it's rather an appropriate term for you..." Liz's expression changed suddenly as her mouth dropped open and her eyes widened in surprise when her own words hit her brain. She glanced around quickly before exclaiming, "Oh, my God. Children."

Max grinned suddenly unable to let this one go. "Yes, I did mention them. I believe 10 was the chosen number, but if you'd like more..."

Liz rolled her eyes a clear sign that she was regaining control of her own faculties and that Max's power over her was waning fast. "No, Max. Dylan."

Max shrugged unwilling to let the game go that easily. "Dylan. I like it. Especially for a first born son. It's certainly better than Maxwell Jr..."

Liz's eyes shot to his face as she weighed the possibility that Maria had indeed spilled the beans about her early slip. Not seeing anything in his eyes but pure mischief born of his own teasing nature, Liz dismissed the thought immediately. No, Maria wouldn't have mentioned it to him. Strange that he should bring it up though...

Her initial concern being extinguished, Liz rolled her eyes again her irritation beginning to mount. "Max. I'm not talking about our children. I'm talking about Dylan. The little boy that..."

"Our children? So you admit that we will have them." Max pressed with a grin as he stuck his hands in his pockets. This was getting better by the second. She clearly wasn't thinking about the words so easily popping out of her mouth. He could really have fun with this...

"Oh, for Pete's sake, Max! Would you just listen to me? Dylan's gone." Liz said as her irritation and sudden concern began to cloud her eyes.

Max's demeanor changed immediately when he saw a genuine worried line crease her forehead. "Gone. What do you mean gone? Surely, he couldn't have gone too far..."

"Dylan could. He's been trying to run away since the day he stepped foot in here. We've already had several incidents..." Liz said as she closed her eyes and took a deep breath as she began talking to herself. "Ok. Just calm down. We can find him. I know we can. Let's start with where we've found him before."

"Where's that?" Max asked his own concern growing by her apparent anxiety.

"Well, we found him hiding in the bushes behind the parking lot once. Then he hid behind the podium in the conference room. He's even tried Claire's office when she was gone for the day."

"Alright. I'll check Claire's office and the conference room. You check the parking lot then we'll meet back up to see if where to look next if he's not in any of those places." Max commanded gently. "Don't worry. He's not been gone that long. We'll find him." He reached out and gently touched her arm to get her attention. "Kendall, are you listening to me? We'll find him. Alright?"

"Alright." Liz nodded taking courage from the confidence in Max's eyes as they turned toward the door together to search for the little seven year old runaway.
~~~~~~~
Twenty minutes later Liz's panic was evident. She'd not only lost Dylan she'd apparently lost Max too. After going to the parking lot and searching every conceivable place, Liz headed for the hallway in search of Max to see if he'd found him. But Max never showed. Liz next went to the conference room then Claire's office. There was no sign of either of them.

She passed by V's desk and asked if she'd seen either Dylan or Max and received an answer in the negative. Next she headed for the small room they used as a cafeteria. A quick survey of the room revealed no tiny body hidden under tables or raven-haired Adonises in search of the same. She next headed toward the playroom and almost passed it by when a familiar male voice stopped her dead in her tracks.

Liz's first instinct was to rush into the room, but something in Max's tone stopped her from doing anything more than peeking her head in the door to observe the unexpected scene before her. Max was sitting with his back against the far wall next to a toy box full of toys talking to it as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

"You know, I used to hide too when I was your age." Max quiet voice filled the room. "My family didn't have a lot of money when I was little. In fact, we were so dirt poor that there was a time my mom and brother and I lived out of a car while my dad went to get a job far far away." Max eyes took on a pained faraway look. "Let me tell you...it wasn't the most fun I've ever had in my life. Waking up with my brother's knee in my face or having to beg for food from random people in the neighborhood. In fact, there were times I ran away just so I could get some space and forget..."

Max shook his head clear of the sad memories and smiled to himself. "Then, of course, there was the time I ran away for pretty much the same reason you ran away today. I thought my mom was mad at me. See, I'd caught this snake. It was a beaut. About a foot long. Completely harmless. And I put it in my brother's roll away as a joke. The only problem was my mom was the one who ran into it first when she decided to wash our gear. I could hear her screaming all the way down by the pond."

Max started to chuckle at the memory as a slight movement in the toy box caught his attention. Max glanced at it with a sly grin as he continued his story. "Yeah, I didn't make it back to the car until nightfall I was so afraid I'd be in trouble. When I finally did make it home, I found out that, sure enough, mom was angry with me. But it wasn’t because of the snake. It was because I'd scared her so much by running away. She was afraid I'd gotten lost...or worse...when she couldn't find me."

"You know, it made me realize something. There was nothing I could do that would ever make my mom stop loving me. Oh, she'd get upset with me at times, but when it came right down to it, she'd never want me to really run away. Because she loved me. And because she cared about what happened to me. At home, I would always be safe."

"Just like you're safe here. I mean, I know it's not home...at least not the home you're used to. But there are people here who love you and want to take care of you...if you'll just let them."

Silence filled the room as Max waited patiently by the toy box. Liz leaned against the doorjam, holding her breath waiting to see what would happen. She'd never dreamed that Max's childhood had been so difficult as it apparently was. He seemed to wear his wealth and style as if he'd been born with it. As if it had always been a part of him.

Bit by bit she was discovering that there was so much more to this man than the cold, calculating, heartless beast she'd heard and read so much about. Despite her head's best intentions, Liz's heart suddenly wanted to discover and know all the hidden treasures within the man sitting on the floor talking to a toy box for the sake of a little boy.

Max's patience was finally rewarded when about a minute later a little curly blonde head popped out of the box sending the top layer of toys tumbling to the ground. Dylan turned his little chubby cheeked face toward Max, his big hazel eyes were full of questions and uncertainty.

"Like who?" Dylan finally ventured.

Max nodded his head understanding the boy's delayed question. "That's a good question. And there are too many people to name, but I guess I'd have to start with Kendall. She was really worried about you when you disappeared and we couldn't find you. In fact, she probably still is." Max turned fully toward the box and asked a question of his own as he leaned his arms on the edge and propped his face on his hand. "So, can you tell me why you were running from her earlier?"

Dylan looked down at a toy he'd been holding in his hand an ashamed blush coming over his little face. "Because she said I had to eat my oatmeal."

"Oh. I see." Max said as if he completely understood. "So, you decided to run away from her and dump it all over me instead, huh?"

Dylan leaned forward anxious for Max to believe his innocence. "I...I didn't know you were there. I didn't mean..."

Max started to laugh as he patted Dylan's head. "It's ok, Dylan. I know you didn't mean to do it. I'm not mad."

A dimpled smile broke out over Dylan's face as he looked at Max suddenly not wanting to have this nice man leave his life so soon after meeting him. In his young life he'd rarely received kindness from the people he called family yet here was a complete stranger he'd knocked down and spilled oatmeal all over and...he wasn't even mad. He was even being warm and friendly. It was a concept very foreign to him. So was the next idea that popped into his little head. "Can I...will you..."

"What? What is it, Dylan?" Max prompted gently.

"Well, I...don't have any...I just wondered if maybe..." Dylan asked as his eyes dropped uncertainly. "...can I be your friend?"

A brilliant smile broke over Max's face. "I was just going to ask you the same thing." He leaned forward and whispered in a conspiratorial tone. "We can be friends on one condition...you help me clean up that mess in the kitchen." Max held out his hand to Dylan. "Deal?"

Dylan put his small hand in Max's and shook it with a big smile plastered on his face. "Deal."

Liz's heart took a giant leap in her chest. She really wasn't sure if she could believe what she'd just seen. Who could have ever believed Max would be able to get through to a boy they'd had difficulties with since his arrival? In fact, that one smile was the first she'd seen on Dylan's face. And what a beautiful smile it was.

Her gaze shifted to Max. What an amazing man. What she'd just witnessed--this little boy actually reaching out for friendship--was nothing less than a McKennacle. Max was so full of surprises. Perhaps that's what frightened her so much about him. She never quite knew what to expect from him...or her heart when she was in his vicinity. She instinctively knew underneath that ruthless image of his beat a heart of gold. A heart that was stealing a piece of hers with each moment he remained in her life.

Liz took a deep breath pushing those thoughts aside and chose that moment to enter the room. "Well, I see you've finally found our little runaway."

Max and Dylan turned to her, Max with a smile and Dylan with a look of guilt. "Yep. Sure did. He seems to enjoy the company of Pooh Bear and Tigger." Max said with a grin as he held up the stuffed animals that had fallen out of the toy box.

"I see." Liz said as she knelt down in front of the box. "Dylan, sweetie, I'm glad you got a chance to spend time with Tigger and Pooh Bear, but how about the next time you decide to disappear you let me know where you're going, ok? You really had me worried."

Dylan looked down and nodded his head before mumbling. "I'm sorry I scared you."

"That's ok, sweetie. Let's just not have it happen again, ok?" Liz said as she lifted his chin with her hand. "Ok?" She repeated with a smile.

A slow smile showed on Dylan's face. "Ok."

"And hey. Next time you don't want to eat your oatmeal..." Liz said as she glanced at Max out of the corner of her eye. "...give it to me. I'd love the chance to give it to him really good." She teased as she pointed to Max.

"Hey!" Max responded with a grin as he tossed Tigger at her. "You'd better watch what you ask for...you just might get it." His eyebrows raised suggestively although he kept his voice light. Turning to Dylan he got up from his sitting position to kneel in front of the box. Reaching out to him he said, "Ok, pal. You ready to go clean up Kendall's mess?"

"My mess?" Liz asked in mock surprise her eyes beginning to twinkle as she watched him pull Dylan out of the toy box.

"You heard me." Max answered as he tousled Dylan's hair once more. "I hope you realize that this is only the first half of Round 3. Half-time, in fact. If I were you, I'd buckle up because the second half is going to blow you away."

Liz shrugged nonchalantly. "Bring it on, baby." She shot back with a playful grin.

Max leaned close to her and locked eyes intently. He didn't touch her. He didn't have to. Just that one provocative look as his eyes scanned her face from her large dark eyes, over her flushed cheeks to her full lips then back to her suddenly dazed struck eyes said it all. "Don't worry. I intend to." He whispered suggestively sending a blaze of anticipation and desire shooting through her whole body.

Boldly leaning forward, his cheek brushed lightly against hers and his heated whisper in her ear sent a shudder of delight straight to her knees. Liz swallowed hard and closed her eyes, focusing all of her energy on keeping her knees from giving out on her or to keep from reaching out to flush her body against his for support. "You were wrong yesterday. A worthy princess like you…I think you're definitely what I'm looking for."

Hearing her intake of breath and seeing her eyes ignite with instant passion when he pulled back and locked eyes with her, Max grinned suddenly and tweaked her nose playfully. Then turning his full attention to Dylan as if completely unaffected by the fire he'd just seen flare in her eyes or the way the ground was trembling under their feet, Max reached his hand out to the boy.

"So, what kind of oatmeal was it..." Liz heard Max say as he and Dylan walked out of the room hand in hand.

Liz fanned herself quickly and let out an unsteady breath as she absently sank down onto the edge of the toybox. "Whoa." She mouthed as she shook her head briefly trying to overcome the thoughts that had flooded her mind the moment Max had looked at her.

What was it he had said earlier? Something about Cupid's arrows being put to shame. Liz let out a sigh. If they kept going the way they were, Cupid would be out of business by the time Round 4 had begun...
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
"Max?" McKenna asked in a strangely distant voice. "He's…he's the man I need to contact for the next job?"

"Yes." Duke replied. "By the tone of your voice I can tell you've heard of him…" He let his sentence dangle hoping to gain more insight into McKenna's sudden hesitancy.

McKenna cleared her throat and tried to calm her breathing as she forced her mind to come up with necessary lies. Anything to not let on just how well she knew Max. She laughed uncomfortably. "Well, of course, I've heard of Max. He's a world-renowned businessman. I've heard he can be pretty ruthless and quite the playboy. Hence, the Gentleman Rouge title, I assume." McKenna asked as she shut her eyes wishing that this whole conversation was just a dream. "I guess I'm just wondering what he would have to do with me and the line of work we're in."

"Well, let's just say that he has certain talents that are needed by our prospective clients."

"Talents?" McKenna asked beginning to already dread the answer. "What talents?"

Getting the sense that somehow it may not be best to reveal all the details of this future adventure, Duke answered as vaguely as he could. "All in good time, my dear. First, I need to know if you're on board with me on this or not."

McKenna let out a sigh unable to resist the thought of seeing him in person just one more time. "Alright, Duke. What is it you want me to do?"

Duke smiled into the phone. "Max seems to have dropped into New Haven for a visit. Seems to be business related but we aren't really sure. Here's where you come in…he seems to be concentrating his time with a certain beautiful Kendall Blake. Name ring a bell for you?"

McKenna's mouth went dry. "Of course it does. She's my current 'victim' as you put it earlier." She paused a moment trying to concentrate on Duke's words instead of the instant jealousy that twisted her stomach into knots. "I notice you used the word 'seems' a lot. Is that my job? To determine their relationship and just what his purpose in New Haven is?"

"Among other things. See, I knew I could count on you to understand." Duke stated answering her question his voice turning businesslike as he ran down the description of her job. "No visual or physical contact. Just surveillance and reporting at this point. I'll tell you when to take the next step."

"What about Kendall?" McKenna questioned. "Do I inquire about their relationship when we talk? You know I could easily make something up to see where she stands with him. You know this could be beneficial to finding out where her weaknesses are…"

"Not yet. Not until we determine what he's doing here and how best to extract his services for our purposes. Any questions?"

"No, I think I've got it."

"Good." Duke smiled again as his voice lowered seductively. "Now, earlier you'd mentioned something about this call being personal…"

McKenna shuddered unexpectedly. "You know, Duke, as much as I'd love that…all this talking has worn me out. Plus I have a big day tomorrow if I'm going to start on this new job of yours…"

"McKenna." Duke interrupted. "Are you sure you're alright with this?"

McKenna smiled into the phone. "I'm perfect with it. Don't worry. You've picked the best person to tail Max's every move…"


to be continued....
posted on 21-Oct-2001 6:06:49 PM
~ chapter 15~

About an hour and a half later, Max was standing in the middle of the kitchen smiling satisfactorily at his handiwork. Since leaving Liz, he'd made a quick stop to clean himself up as much as he could, then he and Dylan had been cleaning the mess Liz's 'Round 3' had caused and chatting away like there was no tomorrow. Actually, Max had been doing most of the cleaning and Dylan had been the one divulging every detail of his sad short little life.

Max glanced at the little boy perched on the counter swinging his feet back and forth eating a muffin. He shook his head in amazement that he'd been able to stand being in the same room with a child for longer than 10 minutes together. Dylan had actually made his time cleaning the kitchen endurable and eye opening. The sadness and pain he'd already had to endure in his short 7 years astounded Max and made him understand Liz a little more. Especially her fierce protectiveness of these children in her care.

Dylan suddenly stopped swinging his feet and looked up at Max with a shy expression on his face. "Max?"

"Yeah, pal."

"Do you think Miss Kendall's pretty?"

Max smiled as he leaned against the mop handle he held in his hand. A dreamy look came into his eyes and his voice softened as he quietly answered Dylan's innocent question. "Yeah. Yeah, I do, Dylan. She's..." Max let out an absent sigh. "...the most beautiful woman I've ever seen."

His eyes swept to Dylan's face and narrowed slightly as he tilted his head to the side when he realized just how much he'd divulged to the little boy. He straightened and cleared his throat quickly as he glanced away uncomfortably. "Uh, why do you ask?"


Dylan shrugged. "Cuz I think she's pretty too." Silence filled the room as Dylan's feet began to swing once more and he went back to chewing on his muffin. Thinking that was the end of the questions, Max shrugged his shoulders and began to swing the mop once more.

"Does that mean you're gonna marry her?"

A choking chuckle escaped Max when his mouth dropped open and his eyes widened in surprise. Marriage? Him? To Liz? Max almost started to laugh out loud at the thought. She barely let him within 5 feet of her now. The thought of her actually agreeing to be bound to him for life and all the privileges that would entail was truly...tempting...

Whoa. Where had THAT come from. Ok. Max. Turn on the blinker and head down a different road. Marital bondage is NOT what you're here for…

Max shook his head. Marriage. Him. Liz. Utterly ridiculous.

No. Making Liz his wife...well, that was...impossible. Wasn't it? Yes. Definitely impossible...no matter how interesting the temporary thought seemed at the moment. Max quickly squelched those intriguing suggestions as he turned back to Dylan. "Uh, I...I...um...why would you think I'm going to marry Kendall?"

Dylan tilted his curly blonde head to the side. "Cuz that's what happens on tv. When the boy thinks the girl is pretty, they end up doing all that yucky kissin' and then they get married."

"Oh, I see." Max said as relief washed over him. Good. The boy was merely echoing what he'd seen on tv and not the actual sparks he'd seen flying between him and Liz earlier.

Max's mind drifted back to the way she'd looked at him when she told him to bring it on. The way her eyes sparkled with confidence and challenge had sent his heart racing at a speed he hadn't known existed. It had taken all of his control to act unaffected by her nearness. To ignore his own desire to pull her into his arms and finally know what it was like to kiss those full lips of hers.

Max came and leaned on the counter next to Dylan. "Well, Dylan, the things you see on tv aren't always real. I mean, sometimes falling in love happens to people that way, but for the most part love, *true* love, the kind that lasts forever...the kind that makes a really good marriage...well, that takes a little bit longer to grow. Sure you can have instant attraction and even...magic…but it also has to be based on friendship and trust. As well as respect, common goals and shared dreams. Not to mention a *lot* of hard work. And compromise and communication. *Lots* of communication."

"Things like that don't just happen over night or in the space of a tv episode or…even with a single kiss. It usually takes a while to build the strong foundation a couple needs to make in this crazy world together. A lot longer than a kiss could ever be, that's for sure."

Dylan's face twisted in a contemplative look as he was trying to understand Max's words. Not fully able to, he pressed with another question. "Oh. Well, then…how come it looked like you wanted to kiss her really bad?"

Max blinked. "W-what?"

"In the play room. You kinda looked like ya wanted to kiss her. And…well…" Dylan's hazel eyes searched the ceiling as if looking for the right words. "…she kinda looked like she wanted to kiss ya back."

A slow smile broke out on Max's face. "She…she did?"

Dylan's blonde head bobbed furiously. "Uh-huh. She had that Pepe' LePu look. You know….the ones that all the silly cartoon characters get. Where they all get goofy smiles and walk around like their drunk or something. Then…well, hearts thump in their eyes."

"Hearts thump." Max repeated with a grin as his gaze drifted dreamily. "Yeah. That's a…a really good way to put it."

Realizing, with the current direction of this conversation, that his earlier treatise on the state of true love and marriage had to be lost on a 7-year old boy when most adults couldn't seem to grasp the exact same concepts, Max was tempted to chuckle at his own answer. Wow. Where did all of that come from? And since when have I become a relationship guru? I've never had a relationship last more than a few weeks... Max swallowed hard. Except once…

Max pulled his thoughts from that particular direction and focused on Dylan's last few statements...hearts thumping. And kissing Liz. And exactly when he was going to.

His honest answer, if he were to give it, would be 'in a heartbeat', but the real question his mind kept asking was...would she ever let him? And he *really* wanted her to let him. That kind of permission would be a victory as sweet as the prize. His mind instantly drifted to what it would be like to claim that prize. To kiss her. Those soft luscious lips sparking with desire. Creating fire out of thin air...

Seeing Max's dazed smile, Dylan brightened suddenly. "Kinda like you right now. So, even if ya don't marry her does that mean you're gonna at least kiss her?"

Instantly brought back to the present by Dylan's voice, Max shook his head clear of the image Dylan's question had created in his mind and focused on the small boy in front of him. Realizing this was territory best not shared with his young charge, Max evaded both questions by answering with a grin. "What it means is that it's time for you to show me your room."

Max reached up and picked Dylan up setting him down on the floor and taking his hand in his. "Come on, pal. Lead the way."
~~~~~~~~
Liz sat at her desk staring at the papers in front of her seeing nothing but Max's grinning face. She closed her eyes and leaned her head back reliving the few short moments they'd spent together this morning.

An unexpected giggle escaped from her lips as she remembered the look on his face when Dylan landed on him and the way he sent himself flying to the floor with his own sudden outburst of anger. The giggle turned into a full-fledged chuckle. Then died just as quickly as it sprang to life when she progressed to the next scene.

Her cheeks flushed slightly when the memory of her own slip came to mind. How in the world had she ever allowed herself to call him 'honey'? Out loud and to his face no less. She was really going to have to start watching what she said about and around Max. Discussing children and children's names twice this morning alone. It wasn't to be permitted. But how could she stop it? He had a way of getting to her a little too easily for her own comfort.

Like the way he'd looked at her just before he left to take Dylan to the kitchen. It had left her knees weak and her temperature rapidly rising. She could literally feel the hot caress his eyes burned into her as his lips promised her he wouldn't pull any punches in his on-going quest to...

To what? What exactly did Max want with her. As Angel pointed out, it was obvious he was going to great pains to shower all of his attention on her. But to what end? Was it to distract her while he waltzed into the back door and took their property? Or was it merely as her closest friends suspected? That somehow he just wanted...her?

No. That was impossible. Powerful men like him always had ulterior motives. Liz shook her head as the memory of his chocolate eyes blazing with amber desire flashed before her mind. Ok. So maybe it wasn't that impossible. Maybe it was time to admit, at least to herself, that he did want her...at least a little. That much she could read in his eyes every time he looked at her.

But did he really want her...the real her? Or just the image she'd created for her own safety and everyone else's benefit. Did he even know there was a real her to want? Did he even care to ask if there was a real her to discover and love? And if he did, was she willing to let him?

Love. That word seemed to be bantered about quite a bit lately. Especially between she and Max. Her thoughts drifted to the moment she knew he had experienced love...and lost. That moment at the Bluff when her words meant to protect herself did just that by stinging him instead.

A sudden pang of jealousy shot through her as she couldn't help but wonder...

Who was she? What had she been like? This woman who still claimed a part of his heart. Was she sweet and innocent and full of fairy tale dreams? Or spirited and wild and always into trouble? And how had she managed to capture his heart so completely that even now the mere thought of her sent a flash of pain through those transparent eyes of his?

And most of all...what had it felt like to be loved by him? Completely, openly, with everything he had in his heart to give. Instinctively, deep in her own heart, Liz couldn't deny her own suspicions...that giving his all was the only way Max Evans knew how to love.

An instant craving to be loved like that took hold of Liz. She'd never once experienced the kind of love that gave it's all...that put her first. The kind Max had spoken of their first meeting. The 'fairy tale' love he'd called it. A love full of devotion and fire. A love that left her breathless with desire yet safe in the knowledge that his heart was hers and hers alone forever.

For the first time in a long time, she yearned to love someone and be loved like that in return. To know him inside and out...what he was thinking and feeling without saying a word. To feel complete with just the touch of his hand. Or know true happiness and contentment in the quiet companionship of her very own lifelong partner. A partner in every area of her life. To truly believe in his promises of forever and fearlessly place her heart in his hands.

Her thoughts flew to her current relationship. What about Sean? Wasn't what they had true love? Couldn't she do that with him? Show her true self? Trust him completely with her heart? Her heart whispered a still quiet 'no' in answer to the questions of her mind. It was an answer she wasn't sure she wanted to acknowledge, but one that she had no choice but to hear in the stillness of the room. Then again, how could the answer be anything else? Sean didn't even know her real name.

But if it were true...if what she had with Sean was so lacking in the kind of love she was beginning to realize she really wanted, was it fair to him to continue their relationship? A relationship that was heading in a direction she had never wanted...one that she still wasn't sure she wanted. Or worse yet, let this continue and marry one man while dreaming of another?

It wasn't like she didn't love Sean. He was one of her best friends. It may not hold the fire and passion or this suddenly constant longing that she felt for Max, but her feelings for Sean were real. And because of the lack of strong uncontrolled emotion, Sean was the kind of relationship she really needed...the safe kind that she had to hold onto for dear life.

Wasn't it?

Sean's love brought her a sense of security that she'd taught herself to not live without. She didn't expect fire and passion or emotions she didn't understand. She knew exactly what they had and how she felt about him. There were no uncharted territories. No new levels to discover. He loved her and she loved him. Maybe she could never really show the depths of her soul to him, but in the long run that was better. That way there was no risk involved.

No. Things with Sean were exactly what she wanted from life. It was never meant to be lived on the edge of emotion anyway.

Right?

Liz's reverie was broken by a light tap on the door. She shuffled the papers in front of her and called out an invitation. "Come in."

Sean poked his head in the door and flashed Liz a smile. "Hey, there. Am I interrupting anything?"

Liz returned his smile and shook her head. "No. Just trying to do some paperwork and failing miserably, I might add. Come on in." She motioned for Sean to enter before her eyes widened when she saw a large bouquet of simple red roses Sean dragged in behind him. "Wow. What a...surprise. What's the occasion?"

Sean presented them to her with a proud grin as she came from behind her desk. "Why don't you read the card to find out?"

"Ok." Liz responded hesitantly as she reached up and took the card from it's plastic stand afraid that perhaps this was another one of Sean's poorly timed marriage proposals. Opening the card she read the following words. "To the most beautiful girl in the world. I love you. Sean."

Liz flashed a relieved smile as she glanced back up into Sean's waiting eyes. "Awww, Sean, that's so..." Liz hesitated trying to choose the right word. Knowing that 'original' would come out sounding more sarcastic than she wanted, she opted for "...sweet." A quick kiss on the lips was Sean's reward before Liz took the flowers and looked around for a place to plant them.

Sean watched her carefully as she flitted around the room. "Kendall, dear, are you ok?"

"Sure, I'm ok." Liz responded flippantly as she nervously played with the petals of the now stationary bouquet. "Why do you ask?"

Sean shrugged. "I don't know. You seem...distracted somehow. In fact, you've been like that for the past week or so. Is there anything bothering you?"

Liz couldn't help it. The moment she saw the roses, her mind flashed back to yesterday and the 'surprise' Max had waiting for her at Angel's. A comparison was like night and day. Sean's flowers were as common as a housefly and his note as original as the wheel. While Max's gift was...well, it was perfect.

Not because it had originally come from Princes Diana. In fact, that was what had impressed her the least. And although its beauty was breathtaking, it had actually been the heart Max revealed to her that had managed to touch her own.

In fact, the whole of yesterday had touched her somehow. Even the flyer stunt. As angry and frustrated as it had made her at the time, Liz couldn't deny that the planning and thought that went into it had been creative, intuitive and just plain...perfect. Again. He'd answered her message to him with a message of his own. A message she couldn’t deny made her feel treasured somehow.

He was getting to her. As much as a part of her wanted to turn and run, there was another part that enjoyed this newfound attention. A part that made her want to stand still long enough to see what he had in store for her next.

Although his assaults of admiration and kindness were beginning to wear on her, for some reason, it wasn't as scary as before. Not to mention the tenderness she'd just seen him display in the way he dealt with Dylan earlier this morning. Perhaps that was it. Anyone that could reach a child's heart the way he had earlier couldn't be all bad.

Could they?

She suddenly couldn't help but wonder. Which was all the more reason to guard herself with the only weapon she had...her relationship with Sean and all that it meant to her. The security of not risking her heart. The knowledge of knowing what she felt. Sean's next question provided her the opportunity to do just that...

"Kendall, darling..." Sean's voice broke through her thoughts. "...are we ok? I don't know what it is, but I just feel so distant from you lately. I mean, I know I've been gone a lot..."

Liz came to stand in front of Sean putting her arms around his neck. "We're fine, Sean. I think we've just both been working so hard lately. With you traveling for EMG and me here at the Center, we just haven't had that much time to talk. But don't worry." She smiled sweetly at him. "You're still my number one guy."

Sean smiled back. "Well, that’s certainly good to hear." He leaned forward and kissed her gently on the lips. "Tell you what. Grandfather is having a dinner party tonight. Why don't you come with me? We'll have dinner then slip out for a while. Maybe take a walk in the garden. You know, talk...like we used to. It'll be fun..."

Liz nodded with a slight smile then suddenly looked at him suspiciously. "Wait. A dinner party? At the Graham's? Are you sure you meant to say the word 'fun'?"

Sean started to laugh. "Come on, sweetheart. My family isn't that bad. Besides, Maria will be there."

Liz's smile lit the room. "Well. If Maria is going to be there, you know it'll be fun. In fact, I hope you all get into a fight so she can tell Eddie to 'blow it out his ear'. I always love it when she says that to him." She said as she began to chuckle.

Sean rolled his eyes. "Yeah, I know you do. You're face literally lights up in anticipation whenever Maria joins the fray. Ok. I guess it's settled, I'll see you at 7:00 tonight."

"Ok." Liz said just as the phone began to ring. She moved from Sean's arms to grab the phone. "Yes? Ok. Send her back to counseling room one. I'll be there in a minute."

Replacing the phone, Liz explained the call to Sean. "I have that client, Grace, waiting. So, I've got to go..."

"Alright. Can I use the phone for a few minutes? I have to check in at the office before my next meeting."

"Sure you can. You know that." She grabbed a file from her desk and came around to quickly kiss Sean once more before heading to the door. "I'll see you later."

"Alright. Oh, and, Kendall?" Sean stopped her as she turned from the door to face him. "I love you."

Liz swallowed hard and forced out the words that suddenly seemed so very hard to say. "I...love you too..."
~~~~~~~~
After having safely deposited Dylan back in his room, Max left him with a gentle reminder of his promise not to run away and scare Miss Kendall like he had again. He then turned to his next order of business...

Claire called out a welcome in answer to Max's gentle knock on her door. As he entered she glanced up and smiled at him. "Good morning..." Her eyes widened as she saw Max's disheveled appearance.

She bit back her laughter when Max gave her a good-natured boyish shrug and held out his arms for her to view his appearance. "Max? What in the world did she do to you now?"

Max started to chuckle as he fully entered the room, closed the door and took the seat Claire indicated for him. "Pitted me against a kitchen full of wayward appliances."

Claire shook her head in wonder. "I'm surprised to see we haven't managed to scare you away from us yet. Especially since this is only your third day on the job."

Max put his hands up in protest. "No, no. On the contrary. My time here has been...challenging, to say the least."

Claire grinned. "I'll bet it has." She leaned back in her chair and folded her hands in front of her. "So, what can I do for you this morning? Permission for another counter-attack maybe?"

Max 's grin deepened. "Yes, actually. Only probably not along the lines you're anticipating."

"Oh, believe me. I've decided not to even try to guess what the two of you are going to do to each other next." Claire leaned forward curiosity clearly written all over her face. "So, tell me. What's your plan..."
~~~~~~~~~~~~
Max closed the door to Claire's office and smiled satisfactorily at the list of names in his hands. Folding the paper, Max tucked it in his pocket and turned toward the direction of Liz's office. He wanted to see her one last time before he headed out for the day to work on completing his plan.

As Max turned the corner and neared Liz's door, a movement at the end of the hall caught his eye. He glanced up in time to get a glimpse of a woman turning the corner. Something about her...maybe the way her long dark hair moved with the slight bob of her head or the hushed tones of her voice as she spoke with V as they neared their destination...made Max's heart stop dead in the middle of a beat.

Max's breathing came instantly shallow as images flashed rapidly through his mind. Shouting. Gunfire. More shouts. Then a brilliant flash of light. And flames engulfing the building before him. Hot tears streaming down his face and a distant voice calling his name...

"Max? Hey, Max." Leaving Sean to make phone calls, Liz closed the door behind her and turned to see Max slumped against the wall, his eyes fixed firmly on the end of the hall and his face as white as a sheet. Something in his haunted eyes called out to her to rescue him. To drag him from the darkness that was suddenly engulfed him. To dry the anguished tears swimming in his eyes.

Placing her hand gently on his arm and shaking him slightly, Liz called out to him once more. "Max? Hey, are you ok?" Max's violent swallowing and his shaking hands instantly put Liz on edge. Especially since she couldn't look into his eyes. She could only guess the depth of agony behind his tightly closed lids. "Max, honey, what is it? What's wrong?"

Max's eyes slowly opened in a daze and his gaze began to focus on the face of the woman before him. Liz? Long brown hair. Deep, brown eyes. Beautiful…amazing eyes. Brown. Not green. And breathing. Liz was breathing. And warm and...and real. Not a dream. Not a vision. But real. Flesh and blood. And alive. So alive. And full of fire. Full of passion. With a heart and a life and so many stolen dreams. Too many to lose any more. Liz…the woman who needed protection. The woman who needed safety. The woman who needed what he couldn't give. "You..."

"What is it? Come on, Max. Talk to me." Liz prompted, real concern edging her voice as a hand reached up and absently traced the rugged lines of sorrow suddenly etched in his smooth, perfect skin. Her voice was gentle, low as if coaxing a scared, wounded kitten out of its hiding place so it could be healed. "Max, please. You look as if you've seen a ghost..."

Max breathing began to calm when he felt the warmth of her hand against his cheek. A temporary peace seemed to find its way into his soul. As Max reached for Liz's hand with one of his own and held onto it with a firm grip, his other hand came up to capture her face in a soft, absent caress while his eyes locked with hers with a gentle intensity that stole her breath. "You…you deserve...more."

His gaze faltered and his next words were choked out in strangled whisper as his head shook slowly in realization. " I...I can't do this. I need...I need to go."

With that enigmatic announcement, Max turned and disappeared before Liz could react. In the wake of his absence, Liz suddenly felt cold and alone. As if she'd just heard him say his last good-bye.
~~~~~~~~~~~~
It was a disturbed, unsettled Liz who walked into the counseling room where Grace waited for her. It felt like her stomach was flip-flopping every few seconds in an effort to avoid the huge knot that was working its way from her throat downward to land like a sick lump of coal.

Pushing the most recent images of Max out of her mind, Liz forced a smile as she tossed her hair behind her shoulders and slipped into her seat. "Good afternoon, Grace. How are things with you today?"

Sparkling green eyes narrowed in careful scrutiny. Little Ms. Goody-Two-Shoes doesn't look so on top of the world today. What ever could be the cause? Grace bit back a knowing smile and leaned forward allowing concern to filter into her expression. "You know, Kendall, I could be asking you the same thing. Are you sure you're alright?"

Liz's dark eyes snapped to Grace's and her pen paused mid-stroke as that unsettled feeling deep inside instantly grew. "Yes, of course, I am. Why…why would you think I’m not?"

Grace demured appropriately with an uncertain shrug. "Oh, I don't know. You just look really upset right now." She flashed Liz an apologetic smile. "I'm sorry. I know it’s none of my business. It's just…well, you've helped me so much. I just wish I could return the favor somehow…"

Relaxing a bit in her chair, Liz smiled genuinely at Grace. "There's really no need, Grace. I've enjoyed our talks. I'm just very glad you feel we've been able to help you here."

Not necessarily liking Liz's non-committal response, Grace pressed further. "Oh, definitely. I'm sure you help a lot of people though. I mean, it must take a lot out of you to listen to all of our problems day in and day out. It's probably a really good thing you have a wonderful boyfriend to help you relax when you're away from all this pain."

Liz was beginning to feel a bit uneasy with this line of conversation and shifted uncomfortably in her chair. Especially since it was a well known practice not to get too personally involved with clients in a counseling situations. It was a scary thought, but one never really did know when someone might snap and act out causing irreparable damage. For some reason she couldn't quite name, Grace always seemed a bit…off…somehow. As if there were some secret agenda lying right beneath the surface of all her tales of woe and hardships.

As if, somehow, she was the one actually in control of each session...

Liz's eyes narrowed warily as she contemplated Grace's open expression. The current innocence in her green eyes hid the flash of cunning hardness Liz imagined she could sometimes see. Then again, maybe she was just being paranoid. Maybe she was beginning to doubt her inner gut feelings about people. Maybe seeing arrogant, smug, powerful Max Evans reduced to a vulnerable bleeding heart slumped against a wall had taken more of a toll on her than she'd expected.

And maybe she should just focus on the case before her. Before she too turned into a vulnerable mass of emotions. Before she took a dangerous leap into uncertainty and went looking for Max...

Liz cleared her throat and forced another smile. "Yeah, we all have our own ways of dealing with stress. I guess that's what we could talk about today, if you'd like." Liz leaned forward and readied her pen to take notes. "So, Grace, tell me, how exactly do you handle the stress of every day life?"

Damn. Leave it to her to deftly sidestep such a wonderful opening to discuss her nearest and dearest. She really was a cold little witch. Just like I've heard she was. Max will be much better off without Liz Parker, that’s for sure…

Snapping her thoughts quickly back to Liz's last question, McKenna Chase easily slipped into her current role of Grace Williams as her emerald eyes filled with the customary moistness that accompanied the part of an abused wife seeking shelter from her personal storms...
~~~~~~~~~~~~
Sitting in his car having calmed his breathing and stilled the rapid beating of his heart, a still dazed Max tried to dismiss the incident at the Center as a fluke. A once in a lifetime thing that now that it had happened would never happen a gain.

He passed his hand over his eyes and caught a fresh tear before it fell as the memory of Liz’s words came back to him. You look as if you’ve seen a ghost. As he let out a shaky breath, Max blinked back the tears that had again sprung to his eyes. A ghost. If only this particular ghost wasn’t so familiar to him. If it hadn’t haunted him many times in his dreams he’d be able to easily dismiss this uneasy feeling that had suddenly claimed him.

What about Liz? If she didn't think he was crazy before, she certainly did now. On the other hand, if anyone could understand constantly looking over your shoulder wondering when your past will catch up with you it would be Liz. Only she didn't know his past. Or how it had kept him from pursuing any real romantic commitments. How it had given him a healthy fear of losing the things most important in life...like people. Like love. And made him even more cautious to take those risks he was so fond of talking about.

Keep moving, Max. Don't stop. Don't think. Don't feel. Just...keep moving...

Max shook his head and started his car, pulling out of the parking lot and forcing his mind to focus on other things. Like his discussion with Claire. And the list in his pocket.

Claire had been more than willing to consider Max's proposal to offer the old military school that he'd recently purchased as a new headquarters for the Center. Especially since it wouldn't cost the Center a penny. Max planned to donate it all...the land, the buildings. Even the money necessary to refurbish where needed.

Max only had two conditions. That when the time came, Claire would throw her full weight behind him in purchasing the land the Center currently sat on. This would be a little tricky since the purchase would have to pass the board's decision. Edwin Graham and Michael Guerin were both members. Two out of seven. Not pretty odds considering that Max only had one person backing him, he was an ‘outsider’ and the Grahams had a large amount of influence over the rest of the board members.

Still, those odds were a lot better than the ones facing him on his second condition...that Kendall agree to the plan. Now, that one was going to be tricky. Not only because Liz was just plain stubborn, but also because this move could only give her more ammunition in her ongoing battle to mistrust him. Then again, Max’s memory of his past, brought back to him so vividly today, could suggest that she had every reason not to trust him anyway.

Distraction. Distraction is what he needed right now…

Clearing those thoughts quickly out of his mind, he pulled out the list that Claire gave him of the board members names and glanced at his watch. She’d promised to make some calls for him. He should probably begin making contact with them as soon as possible. That way the seed planted by Claire would be fresh in their minds as well as give him a chance to escape the doubts that had begun to creep into his own...

The sooner he could get this done, the better he'd feel about leaving this cursed town as soon as possible.
~~~~~~~~~
After meeting with her client, Grace, for what seemed like forever, Liz quickly scanned the contents of her desk and decided that her unmistakable lack of concentration would be of no use in the office for the rest of the day. Thankfully her hours at the Center were very flexible, so she locked her door, said good-bye to V and headed to her haven.

Home. Liz smiled when she closed the door to her little stone cottage and leaned against it with a sigh of relief. She breathed in the scent of the flowers that Angel and Jaedan must have put throughout the cottage earlier in the day. Good thing she remembered their weekly visits so she could warn Kyle to make himself scarce today.

If you asked anyone she knew in New Haven where Kendall lived, they would say in the rented room above Rosie's. And that would be accurate. But where Liz lived was an entirely different matter. An entirely different matter altogether.

The cottage didn't actually belong to Liz. The rental agreement with a local realtor had an assumed name on it--Laine Matthews. Angel had actually been the one to set up "Laine's" account at a bank in L.A. where all of her checks came from and transacted with the realtor, but the money in the account was all Liz's. Her lifetime payment for turning her back on a life of misery with Christopher Giovanni Santoro.

Whether the cottage belonged to her or not, this is where Liz really felt at home. Even Angel's B&B couldn't provide her the comfort and solitude she needed to feel free enough to be herself...Elizabeth Ann Parker. Talented singer and gifted painter. Child protégé.

That's what they'd called her. In the past. When her dreams were naïve and untainted by the realities of the world. When they allowed her to create beauty with the smallest, simplest things. Like a flower. Or the harmony of two voices blended together in song.

In all honesty, the painter in her had been on vacation for quite a while, but she knew if she wanted to try her hand at creating masterpieces again, this would be the place to come. Her singing had continued, though not of the happily upbeat or romantically inclined. And definitely not for public ears to hear. Only these walls ever heard her voice lifted in song. She could do that here. This place completed her somehow.

So, this is where she'd come to be alone. With her thoughts. With her dreams when she dared to dream them. With the past. With the girl she used to be.

Angel and Jaedan stopped by once a week when Liz wasn't in to check on things for her. Although Angel knew all of her secrets, there was still a little 5 year old girl who believed she was nothing more than her beloved Kendall instead of the mother she longed for. So, to Jaedan this was a fun outing with grandnanny to help out a friend.

As for her room above Rosie's, it had too much traffic to really be hers. To many people coming in and out who would ask too many questions about pictures or paintings... No, it had been much simpler to throw together a sparsely decorated apartment where Kendall would reside and then slip away occasionally to her haven, decorated to her tastes and surrounded by her memories whenever she felt the overwhelming need.

And boy did she feel it today. She let out a sigh and tossed her keys on the tiny table by the door heading toward the couch in the open, airy great room. Liz plopped down wearily and closed her eyes as the sun's rays streamed down on her from the large oval window high above her on the second floor.

Once again her mind saw a mixture of colors. The same ones that had drifted in and out of her thoughts while she'd met with Grace. The ones that haunted her dreams. Midnight. Chocolate. Gold. Amber. Sharply intense, yet muted. Sparkling, but instantly dulled. You...deserve more. Liz swallowed hard and opened her eyes as she began to shake her head. "God, Max. What in the world are you doing to me?" She whispered out loud.

Running her hands through her tousled hair, she let out a weary sigh and got up heading for the stairs. Maybe if she tried to take a nap, she'd feel better. Maybe she wouldn't have this uneasy feeling in the pit of her stomach every time Max's face came to her...the way he looked slumped against the wall, holding onto her hand for dear life. Or the sense of impending finality in his absently uttered words.

As she reached the second floor loft, Liz headed down the hall toward her room passing the spare room on her left. She should probably check on Kyle. Although he'd improved enough to graduate from the couch to the spare room last night, he still spent most of that time in a pain-reduced sleep. Liz let out a sigh. She just didn't have the energy right now to deal.

Moving on toward her own room, Liz stopped suddenly and turned back to stare at the closed door at the far end of the hall as a thought struck her. It seemed like forever since she'd been in there. The place where her visions used to take shape. If only she had the courage to try maybe, just maybe, the images so clear in her mind would disappear and allow her to sleep. If she could capture just a brushstroke of the magic that surrounded her when she looked into his eyes...

Approaching the door warily as if a monster would come jumping out at her any second, Liz stopped short when she reached the door. She let out shaky breath and swallowed hard before squaring her shoulders and hesitantly reaching for the handle. Pausing to take a deep breath, Liz squeezed her eyes shut before turning the knob and bravely throwing the door open.

There it was. Her studio. Just as she left it months ago. Canvass. Paint brushes. Paint. Even the vase and hat she'd been trying to replicate. They were all there untouched by anything except the sunlight streaming through the skylight in the ceiling.

Liz advanced into the room slowly not sure what was compelling her to risk certain disappointment and frustration. In herself. In her talent. In her finished products. The feelings of inadequacy that always seemed to engulf her when she'd tried to paint over the last few years. Whatever it was that was combating all of that insecurity now, it was powerful. And it was drawing her to the easel before her.

Replacing the finished painting on the easel with a blank canvass, Liz next opened the window to allow the fresh autumn air to flow through the room. She turned to her cd player, selected a cd and pressed start. "Guess if you're going to do this, you might as well do it all the way, huh? Nothing like some of Liz Parker's very own recordings to get the creative juices flowing, right?"

Liz threw on her apron and turned toward the canvass, paint brush poised as the words sung by her own voice began to fill the room...
~~~~~~~~
Several hours later, Max pulled in front of the massive school building, turned the car off and locked the door behind him as he headed toward the building. Overall, the meetings had gone well. There had been hesitant looks and many questions, but Claire’s preparation had made his introductions fairly painless. Of course, Edwin and Michael knew nothing about the meetings. And, of course, they’d probably gotten an earful by now.

Max grinned. That’s ok. His hand would be tipped tonight anyway. At the EMG board meeting. Deciding to check on his preparations for tomorrow, Max headed inside. Satisfied that everything had been done to his specifications, Max decided to spend a little time getting acquainted with the rest of the land. According to his calculations, he had only one building left to assess. The former dean’s cottage just beyond the ancient chapel where he’d met his enchanting ‘Garden Princess’.

Heading into the woods, Max fought to concentrate only on the path in front of him and the plans he’d made for this evening and tomorrow. Truth be known, tonight’s board meeting was of no real concern to Max. He’d played this game too many times to really worry about his game plan or the outcome. He knew what he needed to do and he knew he’d do it with his usual finesse. Not to mention he understood the other players enough to guess what their reaction would be. Still, it should be interesting to say the least.

Tomorrow was, however, a different matter. Tomorrow he wasn’t facing a business adversary. He wasn’t wrapping up a deal whose every detail had been planned from the start. He wasn’t even playing a game. Tomorrow was the real deal. The day he tried to convince Liz everything she believed about him was false. That everything she held dear was safe.

If Kyle knew Max’s plan, he’d probably consider kidnapping him just to keep him from going through with it. The fact that all of their work and planning for this deal rested on Liz’s decision tomorrow made Max more than a little anxious.

Even so, Max knew it was the right thing to do. Actually, it was the only thing he wanted to do. No gain he could possibly receive would be worth the pain he could imagine residing in her eyes if her children were harmed in any way...

And after that was done…well, after that was done he could move on. Without guilt. And never look back…

Before Max knew it, he’d come as far as the chapel. Pausing a moment to glance inside, he smiled remembering the wonder he felt as his little Princess showed him her secret garden. What a special little girl. He really did need to find out more about her. Maybe he'd ask Angel. He filed that goal away in his mental files and promised himself to make that his next project. It'd be interesting to find out who this mommy of hers she dreamed about was. Maybe something he could handle from a distance perhaps.

As Max continued down the path he reached a stream flowing rapidly through the center of his property. A cobblestone bridge connected the side he was on to the other bank with a slight arch and a quaintness that spoke of days gone by. Just beyond the bridge he saw it. The top of the cottage. It was framed by the trees at the edge of the woods, resting just on the other side of the stream that was running in front of him. Max was slowly crossing the bridge taking in the scenery when he stopped suddenly and turned instantly toward the cottage.

His pulse quickened and he swallowed hard when he once again heard that angelic voice that had sung her way into his heart about a week ago. A voice he’d begun to believe he’d dreamed up. As he stood rooted to the ground, his eyes transfixed on the cottage in front of him, a slow smile came to his lips. There was no mistaking that voice. Now if he could just get close enough to hear the secrets of her heart....

Max hurried over the bridge and down the path heading toward the cottage. When he finally reached it, he carefully began to circle it to see if he could ascertain exactly where the song was strongest. Remembering her reaction that night at the gazebo, Max had no idea how she’d react to a stranger suddenly pounding on her door demanding to know who she was. He wanted a glimpse first. Just to make sure she really wasn’t just a figment of his imagination.

As he headed toward the backside of the cottage, the voice became clearer. Looking up, Max spied an open window and his heart took a leap. She was in there. Up in that room with the window. Her song suddenly ended leaving the air around him still and empty. Max took a deep breath and waited anxiously to see if she would resume her private concert or if all glory had ended with the last note.

His patience was rewarded by the strains of a new tune. A soft slow ballad that struck his heart with the very first note...

"Please, love, let’s make no impartial vow. Let all fall away that’s not crucial now. I want a brave love. One that makes me weak in the knees. I want a crazy, crazy love. One that makes me come undone at the seams...”

Max closed his eyes and let the words of the song grip his heart as his mind drifted involuntarily to a dark-haired beauty with eyes that danced with fire and lips that curled into a radiant smile. The warmth of her love filled his mind as he remembered the way she sat in the floor with children surrounding her, loving them and giving them everything she had. She was absolutely...breathtaking.

"Kiss the flame. Let’s run with the hunted, the untamed. Kiss the flame. Embrace the faceless, the unnamed. Kiss the flame."

If only he had the courage. If only he were brave. Getting involved with Liz with all of her secrets and hidden past would be exactly like kissing a flame...he was sure to get burned. Taking her in his arms would be like embracing every unnamed fear that had been placed in her eyes by that faceless man of her past...the one even Angel was reluctant to speak of...

"There are nightmares on the sidewalk. There are jokes on tv. There are people selling thoughtlessness with such casualty. Wherefore art thou, Romeo? Where have all the brave men gone? Show me one man who knows his own heart. To him I shall belong."

Am I sure of what I want? Of what I'm doing? Do I really know my heart enough to open up and show her what's inside?

Angel's words came ringing back loud and clear... "And what is it that you want, Max? Is it to love her...or is all of this really just a game to you? You need to know what you want before you go any further...Just be sure when you're ready to place the bet that you're willing to risk it all. She deserves nothing less than she'll have to give."

"Kiss the flame. Let’s run with the hunted, the untamed. Kiss the flame. Embrace the faceless, the unnamed. Kiss the flame. Please, love, let's make no impartial vow."

Max opened his eyes as her song ended, a sudden longing to see the face that belonged to the voice inside taking hold of him. But for some reason, he wasn’t quite ready to meet her face to face yet. He was afraid the effect of her words would be too evident in his eyes. He glanced around quickly and spotted a trellis running up the side of the cottage right next to the window. If he could just climb high enough...

Max moved silently to the bottom of the trellis and tested it by placing his foot on it and pulling his full weight onto the bottom rung. Convinced that it would be able to hold him, Max cautiously began his climb to the window. Just as the top of his head became level with the bottom of the window, Max paused to get a better grip on the trellis before carefully raising himself up to look in the window. Inching his way up, Max took a deep breath then moved slightly to the right just enough to pull himself up when he heard a sudden loud piercing scream...

Max didn't know what hit him. One moment he was preparing to finally see his singing angel of the forest and the next he landed on the ground with a thud. A sticky substance was oozing out onto his shirt from the plastic object that was lying on top of him, apparently thrown from the window above with a scream of frustration.

Max groaned slightly and opened his eyes carefully, looking up at the window with a sigh. What was it with him and this town? His good luck and fortune seemed to have fled him the moment he laid eyes on the “Welcome to New Haven” sign. There hadn't been a day yet that he hadn't needed to take at least 2 showers or hadn't ended up laid out on the ground because of some misfortune that had befallen him.

Pushing the object off his chest, Max pulled himself to a sitting position and looked down at his clothes. Paint. He groaned again. Great. Just great.

Looking around him at the objects that had been flung out of the window causing him to lose his balance on the trellis as he moved suddenly to avoid being hit by them, Max saw the makings of an artist’s treasure chest. There were paint brushes of all sizes, the palette that had fallen on top of him and bottles of paint.

Max shook his head in confusion as he reached down and picked up a brush grinning suddenly as a thought hit him. So his singer was an artist as well, huh? Interesting. *Very* interesting…

As the wheels in Max's mind began to whirl, a sly smile drifted over his lips. If his singer and his painter were one in the same, and Angel knew his painter…then Angel knew his singer. Which made perfect sense because the singer was in the gazebo just beyond the garden at the B&B! Wow! I did it! I did it! I figured it out!

Max nearly burst into laughter at the simplicity of his discovery as his head shook in wonder. Boy, it is a good thing no one knows just how off your game you are right now. Must be all that lost sleep over Liz…

Max's triumphant grin slipped from his face when the sound of tears coupled with a man's voice drifted down to him. "Hey, what happened?" Concern edged every word. "Are you alright? Shhh, angel, it's ok. Just…let it out, ok? I'm here for you, angel…"


Sitting up straighter, Max blinked his eyes in simultaneous confusion and realization. Angel? And…was he dreaming or did that sound like… Nah. That wasn't. Or was it? Yeah…that was…

Max swallowed hard and let out a shaky breath as his gaze drifted up to the window. "Kyle?"

tbc...
posted on 21-Oct-2001 6:08:42 PM
~ chpat 16 ~

"Kyle?" Max couldn't believe his ears. That was definitely his brother's voice. But…Angel? Could she really be artist and singer in disguise?

His gut told him no. But being a man of logic, Max wasn't quite ready to dismiss the possibility. Especially since he wasn't quite sure what kind of tricks his mind had been playing on him just today alone…

Max listened carefully to the muffled tones floating down to him from the window above. It certainly didn't sound like Angel's voice. But the reality was, since the mystery woman was only whispering and what words she spoke were accompanied by tears, Max couldn't hear enough to be certain of anything.

Except that his brother was inside that cottage with his artist. His singing angel. Kyle knew her face. Kyle knew her name. And…Kyle was the one comforting her.

Well. All this intrigue was going to end and it was going to end now.

Quickly jumping to his feet, Max headed straight for the front door of the cottage, determination blazing in his eyes.
~~~~~~~~~~
Kyle's arms were still wrapped around her shaking shoulders, his hand ran soothingly over her long hair. "Shh, Liz. It's ok."

"No. No, it's not." Angered with herself, Liz pushed her way out of Kyle's arms and quickly swiped the tears form her face. "I'm…I'm sorry I woke you. I didn't mean to…"

"Liz, it's ok. Really." Kyle attempted to reach out to her but Liz took a distancing step back. Kyle dropped his arms to his side and eyed her carefully. "It's him, isn't it?"

Liz's head snapped up and her tear-filled eyes widened in fear as her thoughts instantly flew to the canvass sitting with its back to Kyle on the easel. "What? Who?"

"The guy. The one you talked about. You know, the one that's lit your fire." Kyle nodded his head as he pursed his lips and crossed his arms. "Yeah, that's it. I can see it in your eyes." His voice hardened perceptively, protectively. "What did he do to you?"

"No, you've got it wrong, Kyle. He didn't…he didn't do anything wrong to me. He…he just…" A choked sob escaped from deep inside of Liz and she gulped in air to try to stop her hysterics from getting out of control. Sorrow filled eyes raised to meet Kyle's. "He…he made me want…more. And I can't…I just…I can't…"

"Liz…"

"I've gotta go. I'm sorry. I just…I'm sorry." One last sob escaped Liz as she rushed past Kyle and stumbled her way down the stairs leaving him alone to take inventory of the one room in her cottage that had been previously closed off to him. She'd asked him not to go in there. And he'd promised…and kept that promise. Until he heard her scream.

But now, standing here, he wondered why she'd want to keep such a treasure all to herself. It was a charming, quaint little room with its skylight and open, airy windows. Light filtered into the room from all different directions dispelling the old, musty 'attic' feeling the room could have easily manifested. There was a fabric covered lounge chair in the corner. Perfect for reading. Or staring out the window at the night sky and dreaming dreams or wishing on stars.

The room smelled of paint. Fresh. Old. One could almost sense the emotions of the colors mingling together to create an atmosphere of beauty. If one tried. Which Kyle didn’t. His observant gaze swept over the rest of the room. Canvasses lay strewn about. Stacked against each other and leaning against the walls. Some with half-finished masterpieces. But mostly they were all blank.

Except one.

The one on the easel. The one that she's just been trying to paint. The one that for some reason sent her into a fit of tears and out of the room. Kyle approached the easel not quite sure what he'd find. He'd heard about artists. How they poured their souls into their paintings. How viewing a work of art was like reading the pages of a book. Only the book was actually the artist's heart.

He hesitated wondering what he'd read when his eyes settled on Liz's painting. He wondered if he should even look. If it wouldn't somehow be a violation of her privacy. To view in detail the working of her secret dreams.

Never much on social decorum, however, Kyle moved around the easel to view the work of art. His surprised gasp filled the room. "Oh, my God." Blinking quickly to make sure his eyes weren't playing tricks on him, Kyle shook his head slowly as he stared at the image before him. "Max…"

A loud pounding on the door snapped Kyle's attention from the portrait of his brother. A portrait so heartbreakingly realistic it shook Kyle to his very core. He had no idea how she'd managed it, but Liz had captured every nuance of Max's personality. The cavalier, carefree attitude he carried around with him everywhere he went. The deep reflective intelligence that shown so clearly in his eyes. And the pain. Somehow, that was the emotion that came through the most. That, and Max's irrepressible hope.

Something Kyle hadn't seen shining from Max's eyes for…way too long.

Another loud pound catapulted Kyle into action. He grabbed a nearby tarp and tossed it over the portrait of Max then head quickly out of the room and down the stairs.
~~~~~~~~~~~~
Max knocked on the door and waited. And waited. Then waited some more. He knocked again. And again.

Suddenly, Max's attention was arrested by the sound of a door slamming at the back of the cottage and a car engine roaring to life. Max quickly headed around the corner of the cottage being careful to stay behind the bushes so he couldn't be seen. He peeked his head around the corner just in time to see an old, rusted, maroon-colored car peeling out of the driveway leaving a cloud of dust behind. A car that was somehow familiar to him…

Max immediately grabbed his phone and dialed a number. “Barbara. It’s Max. Patch me through to David Abrams.” Max headed back around the corner of the cottage toward the spot where he had landed while he waited to hear the other voice on the line. “David. It's Max. Listen, that new property I just purchase on the outskirts of New Haven...yeah, that’s the one. There’s a cottage on the property. I need to know why I wasn't told it was being rented to someone." Max listened for a moment and nodded. “A mistake? Yeah, well, that's a pretty big mistake to make, don't you think?"

He sighed impatiently into the phone. "Fine. I want to know who is renting it and how long they have left on the lease. Yes, I'll hold."

As he waited for the realtor to pull up the info on the cottage, Max knelt and began picking up the debris that had fallen from the storm that had apparently gripped the heart of the artist who had fled. Who was she and just what had caused her to toss the tools of her trade out the window as if they were nothing more than trash?

David's voice interrupted Max thoughts. "Yeah, I'm here. Uh-huh. It's a woman. So, what's her name?" Max pulled out a piece of paper and pen and wrote it down as he repeated the name to David. "Laine Matthews. Got it. And how long is her lease? Ok. And how much longer does she have on it? Two weeks? Perfect. Oh, David? Send all of the files on this property to Barbara. You're fired."

Max clicked his phone off his frustrated frown turning into a grin as he began to contemplate the information he'd just been given. "Perfect. Absolutely perfect." Now to prove if his suspicions were right. If he could just get a glimpse of what she was painting and perhaps get his hands around that neck of that wayward brother of his…
~~~~~~~~~~~
Liz's tears were coming fast. How could she have been so stupid? She knew this was going to happen. That her hopes would just get dashed. Why had she attempted to paint again at all?

She reached up and impatiently brushed her tears away. So what if she tossed her paint supplies on the ground and left them there. She hoped it would rain so they'd get ruined and she'd never have to look at them again!

After attempting a masterpiece, Liz viewed her finished product in disgust. The stormy midnight eyes had lacked that amber sparkle that usually made her want to smile in spite of herself. And the lopsided smirk…it's light had the wattage of a night light compared to the radiance of the sun that always managed to shine when he flashed one of his trademark grins at her. The only thing that had turned out right was the gentle arch of his brows and the way softly feathered raven's hair danced in the wind.

What a fool to think she could actually paint a portrait to equal the spirit of the model. She hadn't painted anything of value for close to 2 years now. Why should she think anything had changed?

Why? Because of Max. Somehow his presence in her life, his constant challenge to her to want for better than she had made her believe that she actually could. That just went to show what he knew. Absolutely nothing. Especially when it came to her life.

No, her life was never going to be more than it already was. She's resigned herself to that fact once…before Max. In the short time she'd known him, he'd just made her want more that's all. All she had to do was remind herself of where she'd been and what she had now…and that, all in all, she had a pretty good life. It wasn't her first choice, but then again who ever really gets to choose how their life will turn out?

Liz smiled wryly to herself as her thoughts flashed to Max. He'd probably say that everyone has choices. That people make of their lives what they want them to be. And he was right…to a point. Liz had the chance to make a choice once. And she chose the wrong thing. Now all choices had been taken from her except to make the best of the life that had been handed to her.

And nothing and no one could change that. Not even Max. The sooner she remembered that, the better off she'd be. Right now, there was only one person who could remind her…
~~~~~~~
Max tucked his phone back in his pocket and headed straight toward the trellis as anger flared from deep inside. If Kyle wasn't going to open up, then Max would just have to let himself in. He made quick work of reaching the top. Once there he moved slightly to the right to get a good grip on the windowsill before pulling himself up to look inside the window.

Glancing around quickly, Max took in the contents of the room catching sight of the easel with the canvass still sitting on it. He had such a perfect view of the canvass. There was only one problem. It was turned away from the window toward a nearby wall so that the sunlight was to the back of the canvass and away from the prying eyes of any would be climbing intruders.

And Max's anger drained.

He let out a sigh at the moral dilemma that suddenly faced him. This was a person's home. Their refuge. A haven where they should be able to feel safe. That was not something to be violated lightly. Either he could do the ethical thing and climb back down the trellis missing out on the chance to find out more about this mysterious artist and singer. Try to find another way to let Kyle know he was just outside the door. After all, if Kyle was in trouble, the last thing he'd be doing is opening doors to pounding strangers…

Or he could slip into the empty cottage…a cottage that was by all rights his…and just take a quick peek. What harm would that do? Besides, it wasn't as if he'd never done this before. Slip in, gather information then slip back out again without anyone knowing. Then again, he'd never done it for personal reasons before. Not to mention his brother was lying in wait somewhere inside those walls and could possibly give him all the information he needed. Max shrugged his shoulders. Oh, well. There's always a first time for everything...
~~~~~~~~~~
Liz slipped up the back steps to her room and slowly opened the door. A smile claimed her lips as her eyes rested on the person she'd come to see. Her Jaedan. She was sitting by the corner with her back to the door, combing her dollie's hair, her childish chatter filling the silence of the room.

"And when the Evil Wizard is dead, Mr. Prince Charming and the bootiful Queen and her little Princess all live happy ever after. The end."

Liz began to clap at the end of the story causing Jaedan to turn around her face lighting up with delight. "Kendall!" Jaedan jumped up from her place on the floor and rushed to give Liz a hug reaching as far as she could around her legs. Tilting her face up toward Liz in hope she beamed with childish excitement. "Are you gonna be here awhile? You wanna play?"

Liz hugged her back with equal fierceness then gently smoothed her hair away from her face. "Sure, I'll be here for a while. So, what are we playing?"

Jaedan squealed with delight as she grabbed Liz's hand and pulled her toward the corner of the room, plopping herself down then patting the floor next to her in a silent invitation. Jaedan picked up a doll and handed it to Liz as she stated happily. "We're playing house."

"House, huh?" Liz asked as she held the doll in front of her and looked at Jaedan out of the corner of her eye. "Sweetie, why don't we play house together? I mean, instead of you being this baby's mommy and me being this baby's mommy, why don't I be your mommy instead?"

"YEAH!!!!" Jaedan yelled out in excitement.

Liz started to laugh at Jaedan's exuberant reply. "You'd really like that, wouldn't you?"

Jaedan nodded her head while her long ponytails bounced up and down. She bounced up onto her knees and turned toward Liz taking Liz's hands in her tiny ones. "More than anything in the whole big, wide world. And ya know what else I'd like?"

"What?"

"If Mr. Prince Charming could come and play with us. He'd be so fun to play with! Oh, and you know what? He could be the daddy!" Jaedan's eyes began to shine with happiness at the thought.

Liz's eye furrowed for a moment as a thought struck her. "Honey, you've been talking about Prince Charming a lot lately. Do you have anyone in mind?"

Jaedan nodded her head causing her ponytails to bounce playfully. "Uh-huh! My new friend."

"Your new friend." Liz repeated as a sudden fear began to grip her heart. "What…what new friend would that be?"

"My friend I met in my garden." Jaedan whispered as if her words contained a secret too wonderful for the world to share.

Liz smiled and breathed a sigh of relief. Her garden. The place where all of her invisible friends and fairy tale dreams reined supreme. No doubt her Prince Charming was just another figment of Jaedan's vivid imagination. "I see. Well, I'm sure he's the best Prince Charming that ever lived."

Jaedan nodded her dark head instantly. "Oh, he is!!!"

Liz pulled Jaedan to her and gave her a hug her voice turning serious. "You know, I worry about you sometimes, honey. With all of your fairy tales and Prince Charmings. You believe in everything so easily."

Jaedan turned her large dark eyes on Liz and asked a completely innocent question not knowing the impact of her words. "Don't you believe in fairy tales?"

Liz looked out the window into her distant past. "I used to a long, long time ago."

"How come you don't now?"

"Because I've seen too much pain in my life to believe that some of my dreams really can come true." Liz answered her daughter quietly.

"That's cuz you haven't met your prince yet." Jaedan stated with a confident smile.

The beginning of a smile tugged at the corners of Liz's mouth at the steadiness of her daughter's faith. "Is that what it is?

"Uh-huh. Grandnanny says loving the right people makes all the diff'ence in the world." Jaedan reached up and touched Liz's cheek sadly. "I wish you could believe again. It's always so much fun to make up dreams. Grandnanny says that as long as we love each other and there are stars to wish on, there's always a chance for a happily ever after."

Liz smiled suddenly as she stroked Jaedan's cheek lovingly. "She does? Well, who am I to say that Grandnanny's wrong?" She hugged and kissed her on the top of her daughter's dark head breaking the seriousness of their talk. "So, dreaming is fun, huh?"

Jaedan's eyes began to sparkle again as she nodded her head. "Uh-huh!"

"Well, then. Maybe you should teach me how. I think I've forgotten somewhere along the way." Liz's smile deepened as she winked at Jaedan. "What do you say? Will you tell me the story you were telling Susie when I came in? Or better yet, tell me about this Prince Charming of yours."

"Ok!!" Jaedan agreed excitedly as she leaned back against Liz and began as she absently played with her doll, Susie's, hair. "Well, Mr. Prince Charming is out walking one day when he comes into this garden and he sees this bootiful Queen and thinks she's the prettiest girl he's eeeever seen…"

Liz leaned back against the bed and smiled as Jaedan's childlike faith spilled forth from every word. It was as if her magical Prince stepped from Jaedan's dreams right into the room with them slowly making his way into Liz's heart and mind. A mind that couldn't help but visualize a certain raven-haired Adonis...a prince of a man that could making her believe for the space of an hour that maybe she was wrong. That maybe dreams really can come true.
~~~~~~~~~~~

Max’s heart pounded loudly in his ears as he stood in front of the canvass and slowly reached out to remove the cloth cover that had been hurriedly, carelessly tossed over the painter’s most recent creation. He hesitated for a moment as doubts began to creep into his mind. Should he really do this? Should he really view something that the artist obviously wanted to hide? Taking a deep breath and pushing any and all doubts to the side, Max quickly reached up and pulled the cloth away.

Max's eyes widened in surprise as he let out a low whistle. "Wow! This is…" Max's speech was halted as his mind refused to supply the right word. Truth was the sight that met his eyes caused too many emotions to rise instantly in Max's heart to even attempt to put them all into one word.

Before him was a simple painting. A painting of a Southwestern desert with a hot sun shooting out a few last rays of amber light before sinking down behind a horizon of dry cracked earth. The sienna mesas rose high into the darkening sky at dusk while a crooked, almost lopsided river flowed rapidly below creating a wave of sparkling boldness in both color and tone.

In the center of the painting there were two mountain plateaus side by side. Each mesa had an almost perfectly shaped oval opening that allowed the darkening amber sky to show through much like the window of a house exposes the elements of the day to the silent observer resting inside.

A small stream trickled down the face of one of the mountains from the ovaled opening like the tears of a person determined to remain hard and numb to their pain but unable to stop the evidence as it escaped from their eyes. The stream sparkled as it caught the last rays of the sun that cast a golden hue across the clouds above and caused a small rainbow of hope to arc in a beautiful array of colors to the rapids below.

Max stared at the scene for the longest time. It was more than the painting before him. It was the emotions he felt literally jumping from the artist's paintbrush right into his soul. There was an instant recognition of the artist's intent. A sense of hope and joy trying to break through the walls of desolation and loneliness to create a rainbow of beauty and happiness. The shimmer of the sun's rays lining the dancing clouds trying to give consistent light and warmth to cooling mountains conditioned to stand the harsh elements around it with rugged and impressive strength.

There was something more. Something unexpected. Something just below the surface that Max couldn't quite put his finger on. Something he couldn't quite see. His intense scrutiny of the painting was interrupted by a loud click in the corner of the room. Max's head snapped in the direction of the noise and for the first time he noticed a large cd player sitting on a table nearby. He walked over to the table and looked at it carefully hitting the start button to satisfy his curiosity. He'd made it this far without detection why not go all the way?

As the cd began to play Max heard what he'd suspected. That voice. He closed his eyes for a moment reveling in the sound that filled the room. His ravaged soul felt immediately soothed as her soft tones flowed through his senses into his heart once more. Suddenly, he knew what he wanted to do. Actually, it was what he needed to do.

Technically, it could be considered stealing but his intentions were honorable...somewhat. Besides, didn't he have the right to know the character of the person renting his very own cottage? And it wasn't as if he didn't intend to return it after he was through with it.

He opened his eyes, hit the stop button, reached in and carefully removed the cd making sure his fingerprints didn't mar the shiny surface. Glancing around for a case, Max found one with no cover. He slipped the cd into the case and turned back toward the painting.

How he wished he could take that as well, but even he had his limitations. It was way too big to carry and its absence would be hard to miss if she came looking for it. Although, he did so desperately want the chance to study it more. To see if he could determine that 'something' he was missing. That something that he recognized so clearly and yet managed to hide itself from his usually acute perception.

Max took one more look at the painting, covered it back up then turned toward the door feeling as if somehow he was leaving a bit of himself behind with it. Little did he know that very 'something' he saw in the painting was nothing more than his own reflection staring back at him. A vision of how Liz saw him...a man with hidden pain that was still so in love with life that he had no choice but to smile like the sun and dazzle the world with his solid strength and beauty even through his occasional tears.

A reflection he might have recognized had he viewed the painting as a portrait instead of a landscape.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Just as Kyle reached the front door, he heard the sound of Liz's voice filling the upstairs studio. Moving as quickly as his injuries would allow, he slipped quietly back up the stairs, pulling his gun from the safety of his ankle holster. He readied it, moving stealthily along the wall till he reached the closed door.

Taking a deep breath, Kyle reached for the knob just as the door flew open. "FREEZE!" Kyle yelled as he swiftly moved into attack position and pointed the gun point blank at Max's heart.

"Hey, bro." Max responded casually before glancing down at the gun in Kyle's hands, his voice turning droll and sarcastic. "Really, Kyle. I thought that little incident with mom's favorite china taught us both not to point loaded guns at each other."

Kyle released a heavy sigh of relief and quickly lowered the gun. "God, Max. You're such an idiot. You could have gotten yourself killed."

"Nah. It'd take more than one of your bullets to put me down." Max quipped with an arrogant smirk that sent Kyle's eyes rolling. "Speaking of which…" A split second later, Max's hand came crashing down on Kyle sending him straight to the floor.

Kyle groaned with pain and touched the already cut lip that was beginning to bleed again as he shot Max and angry, injured look. "Dammit, Max! Just what the hell was that for?!"

"New Haven Children's Home. Sound familiar?" Max shook his head disapprovingly at Kyle as his eyes blazed with fire, his voice laced with barely controlled anger. "God, Kyle, I never knew you'd go so far. I never dreamed you'd hurt harmless children for nothing more than a business deal. In fact, I'd love nothing better than to beat you to a pulp right now, but it looks like someone already beat me to the punch, so to speak."

"Max…" Kyle slowly struggled to his feet. "…you've got it wrong about the Center."

"I do, huh?" Max crossed his arms in front of him.

"Yes. You do." Kyle's steely gaze met Max's and Max found in those blue eyes a sincerity he couldn't ignore.

A dark eyebrow raised and Max tilted his head in contemplation. As if having come to a decision, Max took a deep breath, his eyes flicking back to meet Kyle's. "Alright. You've got five minutes to explain about the Center then I want to know what the hell is going on with the Stars." Max took a step forward. "Then after that…I want to know everything you know about the woman with these nice digs you've managed to fall into."

Kyle blinked at the last demand, his curious mind shifting into overdrive. "What woman?"

"The one I heard you called Angel."

A slow smirk spread over Kyle's lips as his eyes began to twinkle. And things began to click into place. Liz. Max. The portrait. Her tears. Her secrecy. The new man in her life. Wanting more. The flames in Max's eyes when he spoke about her. Damn. Looks like more than one fire's been lit in this town… "Am I mistaken or…do you actually sound…jealous?"

Max rolled his eyes and crossed his arms in an effort to ward off the truth of Kyle's words. "If I was going to be jealous of someone, Kyle, it wouldn't be you. You look like hell, by the way…" He released a sigh and relaxed at Kyle's widening, knowing smile. "Look, there's a lot going on in this town. From what I gather, some of its pretty serious. I want to know the players."

"And I think she's one of those players. But to be sure, I need her name. I need her past. I need her fears. I need…" Max's voice caught and a flicker of emotion raced through his eyes. "…I need…her…" Max paused unable to think of anything else to say as his sentence trailed off appropriately and his gaze wavered uncomfortably.

At the seriousness of Max's tone, Kyle's smile faded. That reflexive pain in Max's eyes returned in full force and Kyle instinctively knew Max's past had been haunting him. Just like he'd known Liz's had. The fact that he hadn't heard Max use the words 'need' and 'her' in the same sentence for what seemed like a lifetime put Kyle on edge.

Because Max was right. There were serious things going down. And if Kyle had any chance of stopping some of them, he was going to have to focus. He was going to have to warn. He was going to have to protect.

"Tell me the real reason you didn't want to leave this town, Max."

Max's jaws worked with emotion and his gaze refused to meet Kyle's.

And Kyle suspicions were confirmed. He nodded once. "Yeah. Just what I thought. You know the rule, Max. Don't need what you want. As soon as you do, you're pretty much screwed."

Max's eyes flashed with fire. "You think I don't know that?"

"I don't know. Do you?"

"Tell. Me. Her. Name." The command was low. Each word emphasized. The flicker of emotions in Max's eyes so strong that Kyle felt his gut twist into knots.

Then he lied. "I don't know. I call her angel because that's what she's been to me, but…I don't know her real name." Quickly shifting focus to answering each of Max's earlier demands in their turn, Kyle clicked off his responses with his raised fingers. "As for the other things…first, about the Center. One word answer: blackmail. Second, about the Stars. Not a chance in hell. You're out of it. Stay out of it. And third, the woman…this is a fire too hot to embrace, Max. Walk away now before you get burned…"
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Max's head hurt. No. Hurt wasn't quite the word. It was pounding. Throbbing. Aching.

Just like his heart.

Five minutes with Kyle turned into an afternoon. And in that afternoon, Max learned things about his business adversaries that he'd rather not know. Not that he was surprised by what Kyle told him, but to know Liz was so close to a family whose patriarch was so devious…

Blackmail. Used for eons to accomplish unholy goals. And Edwin Graham's goals were definitely unholy. He wanted the property the Center sat on so badly that he had dug around and found dirt on Max. Dirt that had been buried so deep Edwin had to have gone to the pit of hell itself just to bring it back into the light of day. Then Edwin offered the information to Kyle. For a price, of course.

And it was the price that was interesting. Edwin didn't ask for the Evans boys to back off of the docks project. He'd actually asked Kyle to be the one to steal the home from already victimized children. Why? Because Edwin wanted to steal it back. To save the day. To be the hero. To get the praise.

And if Kyle didn't comply? Well. Then all those hellish nightmares Max had tried to bury so long ago would be brought into sudden light. Ruining his reputation. Bringing back pain that Max had tried way too long to forget. Making a sane man insane in the craziest of worlds.

And that was the one thing Kyle could not…would not…allow to happen. So, he did the only thing he could do. He'd agreed to the 'take over' of the children's center.

With one heated reprimand from Max to Kyle for keeping such a secret and trying to deal with it himself followed by a quickly placed call to Max's lawyer, Max and Kyle had a counter attack in place. One that Max would carry out as soon as possible before hitting the road.

And speaking of the road, Kyle decided he'd better be on his way too. Now that he and Max had hooked up, necessary information had been exchanged and there was an actual way out of this haven of Liz's, Kyle scribbled a quick, enigmatic note of thanks and left it on her bed. He then gathered his gear and headed out the door with a curious Max behind him, taking one last look around a place that truly felt like a home.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Max entered the cottage and dropped his keys on the table glancing at the phone to see if he had any messages. There were several, but only one that really captured his attention.

Max leaned back as he dialed the familiar number and wearily, absently played with the cd he'd lifted from the cottage while he waited for his friend's deep voice to answer on the other line. "Hey, Alex. I got your message to call. So, what's up? Have you found out anything else on Liz?"

Alex let out a sigh. "Hey, man. I've not gotten a thing. I talked to your friend at the Bureau, Sheila. She couldn't help." Alex paused as he considered his next words.

Max noticed the hesitation in his voice and commented. "She couldn't or she wouldn't?"

Alex shrugged. "Well, I was with her when she looked through the records and there's nothing to be found on this chick. Not that I could see. I did, however, get the impression Sheila might know something that isn't in any records we'd be able to locate. In fact, I have the feeling she knows quite a bit. But she's not going to give it up to me."

"Because she doesn't know you." Max stated the obvious as the wheels in his head started to turn, unable to stop that curious mind of his. "Maybe if I made a personal visit..."

"No. Don't." Alex said cutting Max off. Lowering his voice he continued. "Don't jeopardize your deal with the Bureau for this. Look, I'm not even sure she'd give it to you. Max, whatever favor Sheila owes to you...she owes someone else bigger."

A dark eyebrow rose at Alex's' last statement. "It's that serious, huh?"

Alex nodded. "I get the feeling it is."

"Wow." Max sat in silence for a moment. "Well, Alex, I guess there's nothing more we can do. I appreciate you trying..."

"Whoa, whoa, whoa. Hold on a sec." Alex interrupted again with a teasing voice. "Don't tell me the man who never quits...who loves the challenge of the game...the guy who always has a back up plan, is giving up on this so easily. A week ago you couldn't get the info on this woman fast enough now you're just willing to let it drop? Man, what's going on with you?"

"I had an in depth talk with Kyle. There's just a lot going down right now. Boring business stuff you don’t need to worry about…"

"Talk to me, Max. I know its more than that." Alex prompted hearing the familiar distance in Max's voice.

Max swallowed hard and let out a small sigh. He struggled for a moment wondering if he should bring it up. Part of him just wanted to forget it ever happened. The other part needed to talk to someone who would understand. "I...I had another flashback, Alex."

Alex sobered immediately and said quietly after a moment's pause. "Tell me about it."

Max shrugged as he focused on the cd in his hand willing the peace it had brought him earlier to flow through him once again. "Nothing different really. Except I didn't dream it. I mean, it happened earlier today. I was fully awake, things were just fine then all of a sudden...I saw her. Everything went downhill from there."

"I see. And you think it might have something to do with Liz."

"No, not really. She wasn't there until after it happened. I'm sure she's wondering what happened to my faculties, though. She thinks I'm wild and ruthless and downright untrustworthy, but I don't think crazy had made the list quite yet." Max said with a light chuckle at his own inside joke. "No, I definitely don't think it has to do with her. Liz's done nothing to remind me..."

"Except get a little too close maybe?" Alex asked gently.

The truth of Alex's words hit Max like a ton of bricks. "Yeah. Maybe." He took a deep breath and continued. "Maybe it's this trouble she's in. I mean, from all accounts it's pretty big. Every indication is that she's being protected by someone from someone. Given that and my past...well, I don't see how I could do anything but cause her pain..."

"Stop it, Max. I was there, remember? I saw everything that happened. None of it was your fault. None of it. There is not a single thing you could have done differently." Alex paused a moment to gather his thoughts. "I know this thing...well, it's kept you from getting close to anyone. And I'm not blaming you or anything. But, I gotta tell you, man...I haven't heard you talk about anyone like you have this Liz of yours in a very long time. You barely know her and she's already special to you. Isn't that worth something? Isn't it worth finally taking the chance? Instead of causing her pain, how do you know the two of you aren't exactly what the other needs?"

Silence greeted Alex' questions as they whirled in Max's mind. Those were the exact same questions he'd been asking himself since his talk with Angel about what he really wanted from Liz. Even now, he still didn't have an answer. Especially after the cryptic warning from Kyle followed by complete silence on the subject of the mystery woman whose cottage Kyle had been staying in. No matter what tactic used or what bargaining tool Max tried, Kyle's lips were completely sealed on the subject.

After a moment's pause, Alex piped up and tried a new tactic. "On second thought, I'm actually glad you've decided to drop this after all."

Max grinned suddenly at his friend's attempt to lighten the mood of the conversation as well as challenge him into continuing the investigation. "Really? And why is that?"

Alex leaned back in his chair and grinned. "I don't know. The idea of teaming up with you again. All of that excitement and intrigue that inevitably follows you wherever you go. The mayhem. The beautiful babes. The feeling of exhilaration after an expertly executed and cleverly planned maneuver." He took a deep breath and finished with a sigh. "Nah. I don't think I'd enjoy that anymore."

Max started to laugh. "What's this, Alex? You saying you miss me."

Alex let out a laugh. "Ha! Are you kidding? Miss doing your legwork for you and pulling your sorry butt out of the fire at just the last second only to have you take all the glory? You've got to be kidding..."

Max rolled his eyes. "Oh, pleeease. Not the 'Wind Beneath My Wings' speech again. Admit it. You miss your partner."

Alex's bright teasing smile could be heard in his voice. "Not in a million years."

"Liar."

Alex started to laugh. "What about you? Come on, Max. You can't tell me you don't miss it. I know you too well."

"I don't." Max answered without hesitation. He leaned back against the couch and looked up at the ceiling. "Especially not after my adventure today."

"Your adventure?" Alex prompted.

"Oh, I just climbed a trellis, fell, climbed it again, slipped into a cottage and stole a cd that has the most beautiful angelic voice on it that I've ever heard."

"You what?" Alex asked in mock surprise. He wasn't really. Especially since Kyle had called Alex right after Max dropped him off at the airport. He'd filled Alex in on his plans to head back home as well as warn him that Max might try to call and get more info out of him on the situation with the IRA. Despite the twinge of guilt Alex felt at the subtle deception, he knew he was following orders and Max would do the same thing if the situation were reversed.

There was, however, one issue Alex had full reign with Max on without Kyle knowing. "Alright, Max. Give it up. What aren't you telling me? Does this have something to do with Liz too?"

"Actually, no." Max answered back. "This is a completely different enigmatic angel. She's both an exceptionally gifted artist and singer."

"Well, what's her name? And more importantly, is she hot?"

Max began to chuckle. "Alex...you're never going to believe this." He paused before making his announcement. "I don't know."

"What do you mean you 'don't know'?" That bit of information did shock Alex.

"Just that. I don't know. I've only seen her once singing at night to the stars in a worn-out gazebo and I didn't get a clear view of her face at that. When she did notice me, she ran. So, I never got her name. Then I stumbled upon her cottage...well, it's actually my cottage...this afternoon and found out she's an artist I've been admiring as well. And don't ask about the artist because I've never really met her either. She won't agree to it. I do however, have the name of my tenant who I believe is one and the same woman. But now finding the cd, I'm not really sure if they are or aren't."

Max let out the breath he'd been using to get all of that out as Alex erupted into laughter. "I can't believe it! It's finally happened! Maxwell Evans, magnet of all the hot babes in the world, has finally met a woman...no, make that two...or would it be three...women who not only can resist him, but seem to flee his presence!!"

Max let out a sigh as Alex continued to laugh. He shook his head in wonder. "You know with friends like you I'll never need to look for enemies."

"Hey, it's only fair after all the times I've had to watch women fall all over you then listen as they cry into their beer while you chase your real loves...those faceless mistresses named 'challenge' and 'adventure'."

"Oh, like you didn't have your share of women pining away for your for the exact same reasons..." Max said with a grin. Pausing before making his next request. "Hey, Alex. I hate to do this to you, but..."

"Send the cd to me and I'll have the fingerprints run. I'll call you when I get the results." Alex answered before Max got a chance to ask for his favor. "Oh, and what's the name of the tenant? I'll run her through the system too."

Max's grin brightened the room. "Thanks, man. You're above and beyond. Her name is Laine Matthews..."

"Max? What about Liz?" Alex seriously asked as he waited patiently for Max's decision.

Max swallowed and closed his eyes against the impossibility of his reality. "Do it. I want to know everything you can find out about her. After that, I'll decide the next step..."

Five minutes later Max hung up the phone with a satisfied smile. Talking to Alex had been just what he needed. For once today he felt a little more in control of himself. Which was essential if he was ever going to pull off tonight's plans with EMG. Now, if he could just decide what to do about Liz...
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
7:00 pm Graham residence

"Kendall, dear, you might want to grab some magazines to take in there with you." Sean suggested as he met Liz in the lobby of the Graham mansion.

"Why?" Liz asked as she scrunched up her nose confusion clearly written on her face. "I thought this was a dinner party."

Sean shrugged. "Well, it's not. I mean, it is. It's actually Grandfather's way of disguising a board meeting so that all of the members will show."

Liz rolled her eyes and let out a groan. "Sean, you know how much I hate these EMG meetings. I deal with plenty of dysfunctional families at work. I really don't like to come deal with yours on my off hours too. And believe me, if there is one thing that showcases you're family's dysfunction with all of its quirks and eccentricities, it's a board meeting."

Sean smiled indulgently as he took her hand. "I know, I know. I just found out about it myself. Go with me on this, ok? Look, EMG board meetings are what being a Graham is all about." He leaned over and kissed her cheek gently then added his next statement with a conspiratorial whisper. "My presence here is important. I'm just trying to secure a place for our future." He pulled back and looked at her downcast eyes. "That is…if you'll ever consent to being my wife."

Liz ran a hand through her hair as she glanced back up at him. "Sean, please. Not now. Not tonight. I've had…" she let out a sigh. "…a very trying day."

Sean tried to keep the pain of rejection out of his voice but failed with his comment. "So, what’s new? You've been having a lot of those lately."

Before Liz got a chance to respond, Michael and Maria entered the house through the front door causing Sean to scowl at Michael and Liz to smile with relief.

"Hey all!" Maria greeted loudly seeing the unpleasant look on Liz's face. Sean was probably hounding her to get married again. Why she was still dating him when she clearly didn't want to take the relationship any further than they already were was beyond Maria. What that girl needed was a good shake. Not just a rumble...an earthquake was required in this case. A wicked twinkle came to Maria' eyes. Something told her on the Richter scale, Max Evans' magnitude would be off the chart. Just what the doctor ordered.

"Hey, Maria. Michael. So, tell me. Are you ready for a night at the Home for the Emotionally Stagnate and Psychologically Unstable?" Liz asked flippantly.

Michael frowned and shook his head with disapproval. "Kendall. Although true, I'm disappointed that you would speak of your…" Michael cleared his throat and forced the word out with difficulty. "…boyfriend, Spaceboy, here in that manner. In public, no less."

"Mickey G, don't start." Maria warned as she put her arm through his and turned a winning smile on Sean and Liz. "So, what's up with you two?" As if remembering something, Maria threw her hands up in the air. "Oh, wait. Did I tell you about the dream Michael had last night?"

"Actually, it was more like a nightmare." Michael commented dryly as he rolled his eyes and Liz started to chuckle at the expression on his face.

Maria continued barely taking a breath. "Get this, Kendall. You'll love it. He dreamed that I sent him to Coney Island to get rid of him, ya know. He was on one of the big coasters…with a guard dog sitting next to him on the seat...honest to God." Turning to Michael she prompted. "Honey, why don't you tell them the rest?"

"Maria…" Michael started to protest as looked at his wife. Seeing that she wasn't going to let it go, Michael rolled his eyes and finished his dream. "Alright. Alright. When I came home Maria had a new husband waiting for her and there were children running around. Sets of twins….all over the place."

Liz put her hand to her mouth to hide her mirth as she recognized the details of her hushed conversation in Michael and Maria's bedroom in the wee hours of the morning. Maria's eyes sparkled with mischief as she hit Michael on the arm. "Go on, honey. Tell her the rest. Tell her how many."

"Ten. Ten children." Michael answered reluctantly. "Five sets of twins."

Liz's mouth dropped open as she remembered that ten had been Max's chosen number of children in their conversation earlier. A conversation that Maria 'accidentally' overheard when she 'happened' to stop by the kitchen door to pick up a file she 'mistakenly' dropped while Max and Liz had been dealing with the aftermath of their latest battle.

Maria jumped up and down in her excitement seeing instantly that Liz saw the significance of Michael's tale. "That's right. Ten. And get this!" Maria turned back to Liz and put a hand on her arm leaning forward a teasing glint in her eyes. "Guess what their names were." Maria squealed with delight as she answered before Liz got a chance to open her mouth. "Max Jr. and Maria Louise! All five sets! Ain't that a hoot?!"

Liz groaned and rolled her eyes at the meaningful wink Maria gave her while Sean looked on in confusion. He shrugged and commented dryly, "What's so funny about that? I mean, I kinda like the idea of getting rid of Michael…"

"Sean." Liz warned as she slipped her arm through his. "It's nothing. Believe me. Michael's dreams have absolutely nothing to do with reality and Maria knows it. She has no intention of trading Michael in for a new husband or having ten more children."

"That's right. Having the ten kids will be Kendall's job. Twins named for their daddy..." Maria quipped with a dimpled smile as Liz's face flushed with embarrassment. Sean's confusion returned as he watched the exchange between his girlfriend and her best friend. Michael's next words plunged Sean further into ignorance.

"Perish the thought, Maria. I get chills just envisioning little Maxie Jr's running around. Definitely not the most appealing suggestion you've ever had." Michael stated matter of fact as he picked up on his wife's line of teasing and raised an eyebrow to Liz.

Sean finally spoke up as he turned a questioning gaze on Liz noticing how her blush seemed to deepen each time the name was spoken. "Max? Now, why does that name sound familiar?"

Michael rolled his eyes. "Slow as usual, huh, Junior? He's only one of EMG's biggest competitors. Maxwell Evans. Since you haven't heard of him, I'll clue you in. He's a shark to be feared both in and out of water. I'd keep my eyes on Kendall if I were you. She just might be the next meal he wants to devour. In the meantime, I'll be taking care of EMG's interests..."

Sean's temper threatened to flare. "Of course I've heard of Max, Michael. Anyone with good business sense has heard of him. That doesn't tell me what he has to do with Kendall or your dreams for that matter..."

"Good evening everyone!" Edwin Graham's booming voice welcomed the clan in the foyer as Liz shot Maria a look of relief. Max was one explanation she wasn't looking forward to giving. Not to Sean. Especially when she couldn't explain him to herself.

"I hope you're ready for an interesting evening." Edwin continued as he took Liz's hand in his and kissed it gallantly. " Kendall, you are looking more lovely each time I see you."

"Well, thank you, Edwin." Liz responded with a questioning look in Maria' direction. Sean promptly came to her side and wrapped his arm around her waist possessively.

Michael's earlier comments coupled with Kendall's distracted attitude of late had him a little concerned. Not worried, necessarily, but at least a little more on his toes. He wasn't about to let anyone solicit her undivided attention...not even his crusty old grandfather.

"Doesn't she though? I find she becomes more beautiful to me each and every day I know her." Sean supplied his unsolicited compliment then quickly kissed Liz on the cheek as he pulled her closer to him.

"Well, this is a first." Michael piped up with a dry grin. "I usually don't get ill to my stomach until after Clarence has served the meal."

Liz and Maria both shot him a warning look before Edwin began ushering them into the dining room. Sean held Liz back a moment and turned her toward him. "Kendall? What was all that about children and Maxie Jr's?"

Liz looked away as she felt her cheeks began to burn. She nervously tucked her hair behind her ears and bit her lip. Glancing back at him and seeing him waiting for an answer, Liz shrugged her shoulders and put on her best smile. "Don't worry. It's only a dream, Sean. Nothing but a dream..."

to be continued...

posted on 21-Oct-2001 6:10:50 PM
~ chpt 17 ~

A few hours later Liz was sitting in a corner chair her elbow resting on the expensively brocaded arm with her face in her hand. Powerless, she felt her eyes droop heavily before closing. A sudden nudge on her left arm caused her eyes to instantly pop back open. She glanced sideways at the disturber of her sleep with irritation.

"See. That's what ya get for staying up till all hours of the night planning a counter attack against Max." Maria whispered as she leaned closer to her. Her eyes were fixed on the progression her husband was making around the room while the minutes of the last meeting were being read.

Liz leaned her head back against the chair and stifled a yawn. "Actually, it's a culmination of several nights of losing sleep and a very boring business meeting. Why do Michael and Sean drag us to these things anyway?"

Ignoring her question and grabbing hold of her friend's earlier confession Maria asked her questions with a note of concern. "Last night wasn't the first night ya lost sleep? How long's this been goin' on, Kendall?"

Liz shrugged as she wearily closed her eyes again. "I don't know. A little over a week, I guess."

Maria studied her best friend's tired face an idea beginning to form in her mind. "I see. And, how long has it been since you met Max?"

"Nine days. Nine…very…long days." Liz said with a deep, reflective sigh.

So that was it. Uh-huh. Just what she thought. And she knew exactly how many days it had been since she met Max? Oh, yeah, her best friend had it bad. Maria began to grin as she tried to keep the chuckle out of her voice. "And, uh…you don't see any connection here?"

Catching the now familiar teasing in Maria's voice, Liz's eyes popped open instantly as she glared at Maria. "Don't even start with me Maria. I'm in no mood to be grilled about…."

"Shhhhhh." Both Maria and Liz looked up to see Edwin's disapproving glare leveled at them.

Maria mouthed the word "Sorry" then turned back to Liz, lowering her voice so as not to disturb the business meeting in progress. "Ya know, sometimes I feel like I'm back in Catholic school…"

Liz giggled. "Yeah, and Edwin is Mother Superior in disguise."

Maria's eyes locked on Edwin's face as she contemplated Liz's statement. "Actually, give Eddie there a mole with a few hairs stickin' out of it and they actually could be twins."

Liz and Maria looked at each other and burst into laughter. Hearing another angrily hissed 'Shhhh' and seeing the effects of their merriment on Edwin's reddening face they guiltily stifled any further jokes and fell into silence. After a moment, Liz leaned back against the chair again. "I am so bored. God, I hope this meeting gets over with soon."

"Why? So you can go home and lose more sleep over Max?" Maria teased as her hazel eyes began to sparkle.

Liz's voice took on an edge of warning. "Maria…."

"What? All I'm sayin' is that gorgeous hunk of flesh seems to be on your mind a lot." Maria paused to let her words sink in then continued. "So, what's it this time? Plannin' your next move or trying to guess his?"

An uncertain, almost pained expression flitted over Liz's face and her dark eyes slowly opened to look down at her hands, her long lashes hiding the suddenly haunted look in her eyes. Her voice was soft and distant. "I may not need to do either now."

Maria's eyebrows furrow and she turned serious when she heard the sudden sadness in Liz's voice. "Why? What happened?

Liz swallowed the lump in her throat and shrugged silently. "I'm not really sure. He just kinda wigged out earlier today. I found him leaning against the wall at the Center as if he'd just seen a real live ghost right before his eyes. The next thing I know, he's looking at me telling me I deserve more. Then he just...left." Liz pushed her hair away from her face with agitation as her eyes drifted closed. "I just…I got the impression that Max's days here are numbered. In fact, I'm not even sure if I'll ever see him again. Or if he's ok..."

Maria's eyebrow raised at the concern that edged Liz's last statement. It certainly wasn't the kind of emotion one 'enemy' should feel for another. No, as sure as her name was Maria DeLuca Guerin, Kendall Blake was definitely falling for this guy… Deciding a little reverse psychology was in order, Maria ignored the seriousness of Liz's tone, her next comment was flippantly delivered. "Good. You should be on cloud nine right now. After all, that is what ya wanted." Eyeing her best friend, Maria posed the fatal question. "Wasn't it?"

Liz's eyes remained closed as her heart tried to make sense of her inability to answer Maria's question with an immediate, resounding 'yes'. Cloud nine was definitely not where Max's disappearing act had left her today. It actually felt like she'd been through every possible level of her own personal hell. Now, she wasn't sure if she'd ever have the chance to find Cloud Nine again…without him.

"Well, speak of the devil…." Maria remarked as her gaze shifted from Liz's tired face to the French doors that led to the terrace.

Liz's eyes followed Maria's gaze and she sat up immediately, her midnight eyes snapping to life. The figure on the other side of the door instantly captured her undivided attention and a wave of unexpected relief surged through her. He hadn't left after all. His eyes. If she could just look into those amber jewels again she'd be able to put all these unsettling thoughts and fears to rest. Seeking his gaze immediately in an effort to determine his state of mind, Liz's breath held unconsciously like a woman on trial waiting to hear her fate.

The door closed quietly behind him as Max entered the room glancing at Liz and Maria with a quick nod of acknowledgment, a boyish wink and a smirk. With that one gesture Liz felt as if he'd given her the world. He was here. More importantly, he was alright. He was in control. Beautiful, beating heart appropriately hidden from the world while he casually stepped to the center and challenged the populace to a duel. He was back to being the Max she knew. The one she was slowly, ironically beginning to understand though he didn't make the slightest bit of sense to her. Her heart tripple-hammered in her chest and she let out an unconsciously shaky breath of relief before hearing Max announce his presence to the rest of the room.

"Sorry I'm late." Max stated casually as he walked fully into the room. "I had a devil of a time trying to convince the butler to let me in. For some reason, he didn't think I should be here." Max shrugged as a smirk hit his lips. "What does the help know anyway, right?"

Gesturing toward the door he'd just entered from, Max continued unhindered as all the occupants of the room sat in stunned silence. "Due to his ignorance, I had to find my own way in, as you can see." Max turned his wry gaze on Edwin. "You know, Eddie, you really should consider getting a trellis. I've had a bit of experience with them lately and I can tell you it'd be much easier to climb than those marble columns you have out there."

Liz's mouth dropped open and Maria put her hand over her own to cover the smile that had begun to spread over her lips. You could hear a pin drop as all eyes turned to look at the silent intruder invading their home. Suddenly and all at once the room erupted into a flurry of expletives and confusion.

First Edwin yelled at Max, then he yelled at Michael for Max's very presence in the world. Then he began to holler for someone named Arthur, who Max gathered was the butler who had turned him away at the door. Michael, of course, yelled back that Max appearance in New Haven wasn't his fault and if he'd just been given enough time he would have revealed the very fact that he had everything under control. Sean began to push all the right buttons and before anyone knew it, he and Michael were in a full blown verbal war. Which, of course, sent Marissa Graham, Edwin's daughter-in-law, into full 'mother' mode against Michael causing her husband, Charles, to pipe up and lob in a few shots of his own. Liz and Maria looked on in amused, stunned silence.

Max stood among them with his hands in his pockets and a smug smile plastered to his face. So, this was the entire Graham clan. He'd always been told they were rather eccentric and interesting…he just hadn't known that 'insane' was also part of the description.

As her eyes swept over Max's impressive figure, Liz's breath caught in her throat. She'd never seen him look so handsome before. It was more than the navy suit he was wearing. Or the way his dark hair fell perfectly over his forehead emphasizing the length and fullness of the lush lashes surrounding his beautifully shaped eyes. Or the way his cream-colored shirt and multi-colored tie made his eyes look like a kaleidoscope. Changing colors with each new emotion.

His presence was so commanding and in control. A man on a mission, his mind completely void of any thought save the business at hand. Full of purpose with an air of casual arrogance thrown in for good measure that only added to his completely unruffled attitude in the midst of chaos around him. A desire to be the object of his focused attention gripped Liz's heart and squeezed it until she felt it pounding hard in an effort to keep the blood pumping through it to her veins.

The shrill sound of a whistle suddenly cut through the chaos causing those who were talking, which included just about everyone in the room, to stop mid-sentence and turn their eyes to the matriarch of the family, Celeste Graham.

"Stop it. Every one of you. Is this any way to treat a guest in our home?" Her strong voice rang out in direct contrast to the frail form propped up in a wheel chair.

"A guest?? But, Celeste…" Edwin began.

Celeste wheeled herself into the center of the room, making her stabilizing presence known. "Edwin, I said enough." She turned her snow white head toward Max and welcomed him into their midst with a warm smile. "Mr. Evans, I presume? Forgive my family's rudeness and welcome to our home."

With an equally warm smile, Max crossed to Celeste and knelt beside her chair, taking up her hand in his and kissing it gallantly. "And you can be no other than the beautiful, gracious Celeste Graham. I have heard so many wonderful things about you. You're practically a legend. It is beyond my pleasure to meet you finally. And thank you so much for your warm welcome."

Celeste smiled sweetly and suggested he meet the rest of the family. "Fine!" Edwin interjected. "Michael…Sean, watch his hands. You never know what a thief like him will try to stick in his pockets before he gets thrown out." A statement which caused Max's grin to deepen as he held up his hands for all to see when he stood up and turned toward them as if facing a firing squad.

"Edwin, silence!" Celeste cautioned before beginning the introductions of her family. Silent nods were given and received as each member warily scrutinized their guest...or intruder, depending on their sex. The men were shooting daggers at Max with their eyes while each woman couldn't hide a hint of admiration no matter how hard they tried.

As Celeste moved the introductions to the corner where Maria and Liz sat, Max looked toward Maria and smiled. "We've met already. Good evening, Maria. I didn't get a chance to thank you this morning for the apron."

"The apron?" Michael asked suddenly as his gaze swept from Max to Maria. He raised a questioning eyebrow to which Max responded immediately.

"Oh, didn't Maria tell you? I made breakfast for your wife this morning after a mutually satisfying 'getting to know you' meeting." Max informed Michael with a suggestive grin. The statement was clearly untrue and totally meant to goad Michael. Which it did.

"Breakfast?" Michael repeated his look changing from questioning to slightly accusatory. His arms crossed over his puffed out chest as he leveled Max with a suspicious glare. "And just what exactly were you doing making my wife breakfast?"

Maria dismissed Michael's instant jealousy with a wave of her hand and warning look toward Max. "Chill, Mickey G. Max is just joking. He was supposed to make breakfast for several people…you know, at the Center. But from what it sounds like, he did battle with a bowl of oatmeal instead." Maria raised her eyebrow in Max's direction causing Max to bestow on Maria the most radiant smile that sent a slightly jealous pang through Liz's heart.

Noticing the suddenly confused look on Michael's face, Maria added. "You know what? Never mind. I'll explain later. He’s just yankin’ your chain anyway. Ya know I told ya what a card he is."

"Yeah. The Joker." Liz threw in suddenly as her eyes raked over Max from head to toe. Except for that first moment when he'd walked in the door and nodded to her, Max hadn't paid attention to her at all. Not once had his eyes drifted to where she sat or even glanced her way. With an extra layer of coolness surrounding the air around him, Max acted as if she weren't even in the hemisphere let alone the same room. And for some reason, that bothered Liz. The moment she saw her chance to be noticed, despite her own best judgement, her mouth opened with a will of its own and jumped right into the fire.

"Oh, I don't know. More like the King of Hearts, if you ask me." Maria leaned in and teased with a whisper, drawing a sharp nudge from Liz that made her wince. "Ow. Ok. Got the point."

With her verbal jab, Max's gaze came to rest on Liz. Instead of his look holding his usual note of challenge, his eyes softened immediately as a greeting flowed softly from his lips. "Hello, Kendall."

A hush had fallen over the room just as he quietly uttered his greeting and Liz felt her cheeks burn hot at the intensity of his gaze. The air in her lungs froze at the warmth of his voice. Her entire body began to tingle with renewed life. As if someone had just sent a pulsing jolt of electricity through her. Or breathed new energy into every cell of her body. And her heart. Her heart had never dreamed her name could be spoken with so much intimacy before that very moment.

Liz. It's Liz. Please say it…please say my real name. Let me know you see me. Let me know your heart knows there's more to me than just this shell of the girl I used to be…

Her heart felt so tight in her chest. It was struggling to beat, but something was keeping it still. Perhaps it was the intense desire that suddenly gripped her like a vise. That began to burn. Began to squeeze. The desire to hear the soft, gentle timbre of his voice as her real name would pass his lips and flow across the distance between them shot through her. What look would his eyes hold as they gazed into hers seeing and knowing the real soul behind the necessary lies?

Liz wasn’t the only one who noticed the instant connection between the two or the way a certain wave of energy seemed to flow through Kendall simultaneously lighting and darkening her eyes and making her cheeks glow with flushed excitement. Like the air before a lightning storm, her look was warm, sultry…and almost foreboding.

Depending on the observer.

Michael's earlier warning about Max, sharks, devouring and Kendall came crashing down on Sean as he watched the silent, instinctive exchange between Max and Liz's intense gazes. He quickly moved from his standing place by the bookshelf to sit by Liz’s side, perching himself on the arm of her chair and wrapping a possessive arm around her shoulder. When an unexpected image of a miniature Max running into Kendall's warm embrace flashed through his mind, a visible shudder ran though his body as his gaze drifted back to Kendall's face before raising to lock challenging eyes with Max.

Liz saw Max’s jaw tighten slightly when Sean shot him a cocky look of possession and in response she consciously leaned slightly into Sean her eyes fixing on Max's face. As her eyes flickered with a sudden teasing challenge, she silently nodded her head in greeting and raised her eyebrow unable to hide the smile that his presence brought to her full red lips. A responding smile started to flit across Max's expression and he was just about to open his mouth when any further conversation was halted with the booming voice of the family patriarch.

"Alright, you scoundrel. Introductions are over. Now I demand to know what in blazes are you doing here!" Edwin finally shouted out in frustration.

Seeing the game they'd begun days ago still raging in Liz's eyes, Max felt a surge of satisfaction flow through him as he turned to face Edwin with a grin and advanced back into the center of the room. Back in complete business mode. With an extra layer of confidence and a renewed air of triumph just waiting to be claimed. "I'm glad you asked, Eddie. I'm here to offer my services."

"Your services." Michael repeated as he came and stood face to face with Max locking eyes with him much like two boxers who have stepped into the ring. "And just what services did you have in mind?"

"Sprockets." Max announced glancing around the room and receiving various responses of confusion, surprise and apprehension.

"Sprockets?" Michael questioned once more repeating Max's words.

Max's eyes twinkled with jest as he looked back at Michael. "Really, Mickey G. I understand the desire to emulate those of superior intelligence..." Max lobbed the jab with an air of irrefutable arrogance before continuing with an added insult, "…but don't you think you should try to expand your vocabulary instead of repeating mine?"

Liz bit back a chuckle as Sean shot her a warning look before turning his full attention back on the battle that had begun in the center of the room and Maria hit her on the arm while whispering. "Watch it. That's my hubby he just insulted."

Eyes fixed on Max, Liz leaned over to whisper back at Maria before a flash of desire flickered through her eyes. "Oh, come on, Maria. If Michael had said that you'd think that kind of arrogance was downright adorable…even sexy."

"Yeah, well Michael didn't say it…"

"Mm-mm. No, he didn't." Liz said while a dreamy satisfied sigh escaped her lips as her eyes swept over Max's figure. It was as if she were taking inventory and didn't see the need to order anything new. Snapping herself out of it, Liz's soft whisper continued as she patted Maria on the arm. "Ok, shh. I want to hear this now. Trust me, he's a master at verbal sparring. By that look in his eyes, this is going to be good."

Maria watched the expression on Liz's face as she intently studied the scene unfolding before them. She couldn't help but smile at how eager Liz was to hear every word Max spoke or notice the way her eyes lit up as she carefully checked him out. Not to mention her obvious knowledge of his 'sparring' methods. Yes, her friend was falling. Fast and hard. Her brows furrowed in sudden concern. As much as she loved that new sparkle in Kendall's eyes, maybe she was falling a little too fast and a lot too hard...

"That's really cute, Max, but that still doesn't answer my question." Michael responded keeping a cool head. "What exactly do you have to do with sprockets and what do they have to do with EMG?"

Max shook his head and chuckled. "I've missed this, Michael. I really have. The coy ignorance you've perfected to an art. If I didn't have better things to do, I just might like to play along for a while. Unfortunately, I won't be able to join you for the conclusion of your board meeting so I'll just cut to the chase." Max jammed his hands into his pockets and glanced around his waiting audience, pausing for affect. "You need sprockets and I have them to sell."

"And just what makes you think we need sprockets?" Michael asked as all eyes rested on the two contenders waiting to see who would win this unexpected round.

Max shrugged as he began to slowly make his way around the room taking time to admire the décor, like a shark circling its prey. "Anyone planning a massive renovation on the docks area needs cranes." He paused before an over-sized portrait of Edwin and Celeste before nodding and moving on, his hands sliding over the mantel of the fireplace in the center of the wall nearest Liz. "Unfortunately for you, cranes need sprockets to operate. Need I really conclude this train of thought?" Max asked casually as he picked up a vase from the mantle and turned toward Celeste without missing a beat. "This is a beautiful vase, Celeste. It reminds me of one that I saw once while visiting Buckingham Palace."

Celeste's face lit up as she wheeled herself to Max's side and began explaining in her frail sweet voice. "Oh, my dear boy. It was probably the exact same one. Edwin and I received that as an anniversary gift for our 50th wedding anniversary a few years back. It was from the Queen mother herself."

"The royal family does have a knack for giving just the right gifts, don't they?" Max responded as he replaced the vase and turned to kneel next to Celeste's chair. His voice softened as his eyes took on a warm glow. "Princess Diana gave me a very special gift once."

"What was it?" Celeste asked quietly noticing the gentleness of Max's tone.

Max smiled. "A beautifully hand-carved hourglass. Even as extraordinary as the workmanship, the lesson she taught me through the gift was what made it all that more valuable."

Hearing the quiet exchange so close to them, Maria reached over and grabbed Liz's
hand unconsciously while Liz sat with eyes glued to the scene playing out before her. Her heart began beating rapidly as Max's words arrested her attention and spoke gently to her soul.

"Oh, how lovely. I'm sure you have it displayed in a place of honor." Celeste responded sweetly.

"Actually, I gave it away..." Max responded with a smile as a glimmer of disappointment edged his eyes. He could easily have continued the sentence with words of how this precious gift had been rejected, but chose instead to compliment the receiver understanding her reasons for the rejection more clearly today than the day before. "…to someone even more lovely and just as valuable because of her own uniqueness."

"I'm sure they treasure it for its significance to you."

Max nodded as his gaze moved to lock with Liz's, his words punctuated by the softness in his amber eyes. "Yes. I know she does."

Swallowing hard, Liz's eyes wavered as she looked down at her suddenly cold hands and tried to blink back the stinging dampness she felt in her eyes. Sean's green eyes turned even greener when he saw the tender, meaningfully charged look exchanged between the two and the unnerved way Kendall looked away from Max's penetrating gaze. Max and Celeste's conversation was ended as Edwin ended his frenzied whispering with Michael and blustered his way once more into the tender scene. "Alright, now. Enough of this silliness! I demand to know where you got your information about the renovations!"

"Give it up, Grandfather. Max will never admit to paying for the information. Under the right conditions it could be considered insider trading." Michael threatened with a smile.

Max responded with a smile of his own. "Michael's right, Eddie. I certainly wouldn't want to reveal how I've taken Michael's own dirty business tactics and perfected them for myself. It might make him a little testy and make my goal of leaving here tonight with an understanding all much more difficult. "

Having noticed the unspoken exchanges between Max and Liz and the affect they had on his beloved, Sean stood up and decided to join the fray. Certainly he could do a better job than Michael was at bringing this Max-person down to size. "What's the hurry? I mean, why tonight? Oh, wait. Let me guess. You've already got your sights on the next corporation to rape and pillage so you want to make EMG a quickie and move on."

Sean came to stand in front of Max casting a glance back over his shoulder at Liz his words taking on an obvious double meaning none of them could miss. "See, I know all about you. You can't conquer and destroy corporations fast enough. In fact, your list of conquests in business are almost as long as the hearts you've broken with your playboy, cavalier attitude." Sean took a step closer and pointed a finger in Max's chest. "Well, let me tell you something now. We won't surrender. So if instant gratification is what you're looking for…you'd best look elsewhere."

Max opened his mouth to respond with a scathing remark when his torrid eyes flicked from Sean's face to Liz's. Her expression was stony, but her eyes held a plea that called out to Max. A plea to let it go. To not respond to Sean's not-so-subtle insinuations the way he could and should. A plea Max couldn't resist…almost.

Max forced himself to take a deep breath and focused once more on Sean the businessman instead of Sean the man Liz used to keep him at a distance, a wry unaffected smile claiming his lips. Each flippant comment was dripping with sarcasm as Max coolly brushed Sean's hand aside. "I'm sorry. I've forgotten….which one are you?" Snapping his fingers as if just remembering, Max answered his own question. "That's right. Sean. The family mouthpiece. You travel around making meaningless presentations while the real work and power remain here at home."

Max put his hand on Sean's shoulder and bent closer to him lowering his voice conspiratorially but loud enough for everyone to hear. "You know, I wouldn't let it get me down if I were you. Every family has to have one. You know…the member that pants adorably and races after whatever bones the rest of the family decides to throw him. In our family his name is Midnight. He's our black lab."

Cold smile firmly in place, Max patted Sean's shoulder as a look of definite dislike and animosity passed over Sean's expression while Liz's registered a mixture of confusion. She didn't know whether to be amused by Max's jabs or annoyed that he'd chosen Sean to target. Then again, it wasn't like Sean hadn't asked for it. She wondered what Max had been about to say when he looked at her. He looked insulted and almost…protective of her. Which made her wonder also why he had stopped...

Turning to the rest of the room and walking away from Sean as if he'd just squashed an unnecessary bug, Max once again addressed them all. "Puppy dog here is right about one thing, though. There is a lot to be said for…" Max allowed his glance to rest on Liz sending a chill of fire through her as he made the meaning of his look perfectly clear when his eyes raked over her suggestively. "…instant gratification." His gaze flicked back to Edwin and Michael. "Which is why I'd now like to state my purpose for being here tonight."

Walking to the center of the room, Max fully turned and looked toward Edwin and Michael. "I came to tell you that the contract you had with Hardwick Industries for the complete purchase of all of your sprockets is now your contract with Evans Inc."

Michael's mouth dropped open while Edwin began to mumble under his breath. "Just how in the hell did you pull that off? Hardwick Industries was to be turned over to Parker Industries two days ago." Michael erupted when as his mind began to race. His eyes flicked for the briefest of moments to Liz's stiffening form before returning to meet Max's with a head-on challenge.

Max nodded as he stuck his hands in his pockets once again. "That's right. It was. Then it became the property of Evans Inc. effective 12:01 this morning. I have the contract in my pocket if you need proof."

"But I had an understanding with Emily…"

"Parker. Yes, I know. And now, you have an understanding with me." Max finished for Michael. "Look, don't blame her. I made her an offer she couldn't refuse. She says to tell you 'Hi', by the way." Max smiled slyly with a wink.

"I can't believe this! I can't believe you got Emily Parker on your side! I can't believe you not only found out about this project but you've manipulated your way into it as well!" Michael exploded.

"And what I can't believe is that you let it happen!!" Edwin shouted at Michael as Max backed away and took in the scene to follow with amused interest flashing in his brown eyes. Especially since he knew the backstory to this little play Edwin was staging. A wave of disgust and anger washed over Max as he watched Edwin play injured innocent to the hilt, but he shook it off and remained steadfastly detached from his own personal emotions regarding Edwin's blackmail of his family. There would come the time to pay him back…if only Max remained patient.

"Grandfather. Let me explain."

"No. As CEO of this company…." Edwin began a tirade against Michael while Maria jumped up readying herself to defend her Mickey G if Grand-pop Graham overstepped his bounds. Marissa and Charles began to whisper among themselves about the joys of family dinners. Sean rushed to Edwin's side wanting to get front row viewing of Michael's lecture. Liz rolled her eyes and let out a sigh as she shook her head at the whole lot of them. She needed to get out of here. The air of this family feeding frenzy was absolutely stifling.

Liz got up and quietly slipped out onto the terrace escaping everyone's notice. Everyone's except the person whose actions had not only caused the current chaos inside but also the clash of unexpected feelings in her heart…
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Angel looked up from the computer as the door to the B&B opened. She smiled sweetly as she greeted the dark haired lady that entered the door. "Good evening. May I help you?"

McKenna stepped up to the desk and smiled back as her sparkling green eyes quickly scanned the contents of the desk. How quaint. There were places that actually still used old-fashioned guest books. Precisely what she needed. "I certainly hope so. I'm kinda lost and wondered if you had any detailed maps of the town."

"Why certainly. There are several in the rack right around the corner…"

This does me no good McKenna thought as she turned to where Angel indicated. I need to get my hands on that guest book…

Reaching the rack, McKenna hid her smile. Maybe the gods were looking out for her tonight after all. "Uh, excuse me, but there are no maps here."

Angel's smile faded as an irritated look passed over her face. She let out a sigh as she
came around the desk and glanced at the rack. "I'm so sorry. If you'll wait for just one moment, I have a feeling I know what happened to them..." Angel headed into an adjoining room and McKenna could hear her as she apparently found what she was looking for. "Jaedan Elizabeth! How many times have I told you not to use the brochures for your personal canvass?"

McKenna took advantage of Angel's absence to get a good look at the guest book. Running her finger up the page looking for the familiar handwriting, McKenna finally stopped and ran her finger over his name. He was staying here. Good. Now for which cottage…number 8. Perfect. Just what she needed. McKenna turned once more to the conversation going on in the other room.

A sweet childish voice responded. "But, Grandnanny, I just wanted to paint my Mr. Prince Charming for Kendall. See?" Jaedan responded as she looked up from her position on the floor.

Hearing the name 'Kendall', McKenna's attention was instantly captured as she took a few steps toward the scene in the other room. The sight that met her eyes actually made her want to laugh. The child, this Jaedan, was lying on the floor on her belly surrounded by a chaotic mess of open brochures. Her paints were in front of her and she held a paint-laden brush in her hand that was still dripping globs of blue paint on the page in front of her. Her dark curls bounced as she struggled to sit up and show her masterpiece to her Grandnanny. McKenna couldn't decide whether she'd been attempting to paint the brochures or herself as she got a good look at the face that shown with such pride at her art. Something about her seemed so…familiar.

Angel bent over to retrieve whatever was left of the borrowed maps and let out a sigh as she reached for Jaedan's precious 'painting'. "That's beautiful, honey. And I know how much you love to paint, but that's why Kendall and I bought you the nice painting pad. So you wouldn't use these. And just look at you. You have paint all over you. You should have worn your special paint shirt."

Jaedan's eyes began to well up with tears. "I'm sarcy, Grandnanny. I'll try to 'member next time. I just got so 'cited about painting for Kendall I forgot."

Her remorse was so genuine that Angel couldn't help but smile and shake her head with a sigh. She leaned over and pecked her on the top of the head. "You know, sometimes I don't know what I'm going to do with you. Now, run upstairs and get to take a bath…for the second time tonight."

Realizing that she'd been forgiven, Jaedan's eyes sparkled once more as a beautiful smile lit her face. "'Kay! I like bathtime! Can I get bubbles again?"

Angel chuckled as she shook her head. "You had bubbles earlier, sweet. I think you need to just take a regular bath this time. Now run along. I'll be up in a few minutes."

Jaedan let out a disappointed sigh then brightened as she made one final suggestion. "Can I tell ya about Mr. Prince Charming again?"

Angel turned Jaedan toward the door and patted her on the shoulder. "Fine. Just get going…" Turning back toward McKenna, Angel gave her an apologetic smile as she shuffled through the maps. "I'm sorry for the delay. My granddaughter loves to paint and doesn't mind what she uses for a canvass."

McKenna smiled back. "She's very delightful."

"She's a handful is what she is." Angel responded as she handed McKenna a map that had actually managed to escape Jaedan's talent.

"Well, she certainly seems to love this Kendall of hers. Is Kendall her…?" McKenna began to ask.

"Friend." Angel finished for her, suddenly aware that this stranger was more interested
in the relations of the house than the map she'd asked for. "Here's your map. I hope you find what you're looking for." Angel's voice lost it's warmth and her eyes became distant, almost borderline cold.

McKenna smiled suddenly as she held up the map. "Thanks. I think I already have."
~~~~~~~~~~
Liz escaped out onto the patio. She closed her eyes and breathed in deeply as she let the smell of the flowers on the terrace collide with her senses and make her feel slightly lightheaded. This felt so wonderful. To be free of the Graham bickering and tension. She loved them all dearly, but there were times she truly wondered at their ability to have escaped the act of murder between the lot of them. She didn't realize she had company until she heard his voice speaking soft and low by her side.

"Beautiful night, isn't it?" Max remarked softly as he gazed up at the stars. He knew he
shouldn't be here. On the terrace. On a beautiful moonlit night. With the most enchanting creature he'd ever known. He knew he should turn and run. Protect his heart. Protect hers. That's the struggle he'd been facing since yesterday. Her safety versus his desire.

In fact, after the events of the morning he'd promised himself he wouldn't approach her if she was at the meeting that night. But seeing the way her eyes glowed with warmth and familiarity when he said her name…well, it broke all of his resolve. The moment his heart saw a chance to escape the chaos of the Graham clan and spend a few precious moments with her his brain ceased to work and his feet moved with a will of their own.

Hence, his presence on the terrace. By her side. Breathing in the scent of her hair and wishing tomorrow would never come. If she would just give him a sign. Show him that her fear could be overcome. That his presence in her life wouldn't be a danger. If only he could believe her if she did give him that sign…

Hearing his voice so close, Liz jumped slightly and glanced at Max out of the corner of her eye marveling at how the moonbeams made his hair shine like silver in the night while the stars seemed to claim his eyes as their very own ballroom. Mastering her urge to follow suit and dance into his arms making them her permanent home, she replied coldly. "Yes. It was."

Max looked down at her with an amused smile on his face. "Was?" He fully turned to her leaning his hip against the balcony railing, his poise casual, his next words a direct contrasting echo of her own thoughts only seconds before. "Are you implying that somehow the moon is no longer shining or the stars are no longer dancing just because I'm here?"

"Because from what I can see…" His lowered voice trembled with a shivering whisper, his penetrating gaze remaining fixed on her face as his finger lightly captured a wayward strand of hair to push it back behind her ear. His hand lingered a moment by the side of her face before his electric fingers ran lightly, slowly down her cheek. "…the moon has brightened under your hypnotic spell and the stars have been charmed into the tango that just now began in your eyes."

Melt. Into a puddle. At his feet. It was all Liz Parker wanted to do at that moment. All she believed herself capable of. Never had a shiver run down her spine with so much force. Never had a touch been so simultaneously intimate and innocent. The way he was looking at her was absolutely intoxicating. She could literally feel her insides warm and turn to mush while her knees started to shake.

Liz bravely swallowed the lump in her throat and struggled to square her slim shoulders in an effort to shake off this overwhelming effect Max had on her every time he was near. She desperately grasped for something to hold onto. For something to keep her from drowning in the swirl of sensations just hearing him breathe stirred deep inside of her. Somewhere outside herself, she could hear the continuation of raised voices inside and was suddenly very aware of how quickly the owners of those voices could venture outside. That thought alone seemed to give her some sort of antidote for Max's magical power.

She backed away from him slightly as forced defiance took up residence in her eyes. "I see. And you attribute this to…"

"My presence, of course." Max stated with a cocky grin as he let his hand drop to his side unoffended by her distance. He'd seen her going under. Watched as her eyes glazed over with desire and her mind struggled to function. Saw something in her snap back into focus. And Max knew he'd lost the moment…for now. Oh, but it would be fun to get it back. "You think I didn't notice how you came alive the second I walked in that room in there? Admit it. You were bored out of your wits before I showed up tonight."

Ignoring his command, Liz tilted her head to the side as she looked up at him. "Has anyone ever told you just how conceited you are?"

Max shrugged. "A few. But this time conceit has no relevance. Truth does. And the truth is…" Max took a breath as his smile widened and his eyes began to twinkle with confidence. "I do something to you."

"Yes. You do." Liz agreed readily as she added raising her slender hands in front of her beginning to mark off his affects one by one. "You anger me. Irritate me. Exasperate me. Frustrate me. I believe, in you, Max Evans, I have found the one person in this whole entire world that brings out all of my bad qualities all at once."

Her expression turned serious and her eyes took on a hint of uncertainty as she ventured into unknown territory…Max's disappearing act this morning. "You confuse me too, you know. Like this morning. One minute you were fine, then the next..." Searching his expression for a hint of the ghost haunting him, Liz continued softly. "…Max, you looked pretty shook up when I saw you in the hall. And the way you left, I wasn't sure if I'd ever see you again."

Max eyes took on a far away look as he glanced away, his gaze suddenly searching the garden beyond the wall as if it were the most interesting thing he'd ever seen. It was only a moment, but in that moment Liz saw all of the pain of a memory he was trying to forget. He swallowed hard as if to dislodge the lump in his throat then turned to her with a raised eyebrow and forced nonchalance ignoring her concern, trying to take advantage of it instead. "So, you didn't think you'd see me again, huh? And this bothered you?" He grinned suddenly at her.

His smile disappeared the next instant when Max realized Liz wasn't going to let the earlier incident go that easily. "You said I deserved more. Then you walked away, Max. Why don't you think you're the 'more' I deserve?"

Ever the gamesman, Max seized upon her weakness and switched tactics deftly. His voice lowered seductively as he leaned forward and locked eyes with her making sure her own words turned against her would have ultimate impact. "Is that what this is about? Would you like me to be? More to you, that is?"

Liz blinked at the swift switch from hunter to prey. From inquisitor to the one being questioned. From the one searching for truth to the one being searched. And he was searching her. His piercing gaze reaching deep inside her eyes grasping for emotions she wasn't quite ready to show. Apparently, it didn't matter if she was ready or not. They were as evident as the full moon shining above. "Why Ms. Blake, am I mistaken or do you actually care about…"

Stiffening, Liz smiled slightly and cocked her eyebrow defensively continuing to play their game. Cutting him off before he finished a thought she would have to actively, consciously lie in answer to, Liz shook her head stubbornly. "I don't."

Seeing the triumph dancing in his eyes and the knowing smile twitching at the corners of his mouth, Liz immediately knew she'd failed to sound convincing. So, she continued, keeping as close to whatever truth she could hold onto and be real. "I don't…uh…want you to be more to me, that is. I…I simply wanted to know if I need to continue my campaign and prepare to launch further attacks or if you're finally ready to surrender in this war you started."

"Do you really want it to end?" Max asked with a hint of mischief in his eyes. Max Evans had just found his opponent's greatest weakness…saying things without thinking. And she was so adorable doing it too. He had expected the answer she'd given though deep inside he knew it had been a lie. She had been truly concerned about him and that knowledge warmed his heart unexpectedly. "Come on. Admit it, you're having fun. And you're loving the challenge."

Liz paused before answering and looked back up into his eyes with a hint of amusement hiding in her own as she continued, making a confession she hadn't planned on. "The challenge? Yes. It has been challenging. Like a game of chess. You make me think. Plan ahead. Try to anticipate your next move."

Max raised an eyebrow as his eyes began to twinkle. "And these are bad things?"

Liz shook her head slightly as the wind blew her hair away slightly away from her face made more beautiful by the shadows of the moonlight. "No. Not always." She acknowledged with a slight smile.

"How about when I make you feel things you haven't felt before?" Max added as he inched his way closer waiting for the answer.

"That's certainly assuming a lot on your part." Liz shot back.

"I never assume. I perceive." Max responded just as quickly. "I just want you to know it's ok to admit you want me. That things are going on in your heart that you never expected. That's really the only way we can move from here to where we want to be." He said quietly as he moved closer still momentarily forgetting his struggle of the past few days and seeing only the desire waiting for him in her eyes.

"Who says I want to be anywhere with you?" She quipped suddenly looking up into his eyes and gulped. My, how close he was standing to her now. Just a mere breath away. How in the world had that happened?

"Your eyes."

Liz swallowed uncomfortably while keeping her voice steady as she let out a shaky breath. "Again with the eyes, huh?" Liz asked as she crossed her arms in front of her in an effort to shield herself from the intensity of his gaze and only managed instead to feel the pounding of his heart as her hand brushed against his chest. It was then she was aware of the sudden pounding of her own heart. Her eyes flicked to his chest with surprise then back up into his eyes which were now beginning to blaze with fire. Her mouth went dry. "Can't…can't you come up with a…a different line?"

Max's chuckle was low and heart-warming. His breath blew across her face causing goosebumps to rise instantly to the surface of her skin. "I could. But why should I when this one is so effective…and so true." He looked up into the night sky as if thinking, then he suddenly brought his gaze back down to her as shocking amber met velvety brown. "Here's an idea. Maybe you should tell your eyes to stop expressing the same sentiments so clearly. Then I wouldn't be forced to refer to them so often in gauging my progress with you."

Liz blinked. Her cheeks flushed. Nervously playing with her necklace, she glanced away, unnerved once again by the intensity of Max's gaze and the heat she felt suddenly rising between them. Her thoughts whirled. In no particular direction. How could they when her body seemed to be controlling every reaction she had to Max leaving her thoughts free to disappear for a while? Finally, Liz just gave up trying to figure out a clever response or quick comeback and decided to take the direct approach, admitting her current defeat with a sigh. "Would you…would you please stop looking at me like that?"

A sly grin spread over Max's lips. "Like what?"

"Like I’m the next corporation you plan to raid." She shot back.

“Why? Don’t you like it?” Max asked.

“No."

"Why not?"

"Because it’s....distracting.”

"Really? It is, huh?" He paused a moment as if trying to process that information. "And…being distracted makes you uncomfortable?"

Still avoiding his eyes, Liz nodded slightly as she took a deep, shuddering breath.

Taking a slight step back, Max grinned suddenly deciding to give her a break and lighten the mood. It was enough for the moment to know he was getting to her. And to know she was now willing to admit it. "Aww, come on. It couldn't be nearly as uncomfortable as say…having oatmeal poured down your pants."

Liz's face flushed as a grin spread over her face at the remembrance of Max's run in with Dylan earlier that morning. As the look on his face and the scene she'd walked in on came before her mind's eyes, her grin instantly exploding into full-blown laughter and her eyes lit up with pure merriment. "That had to be the funniest…you should have seen the look…on your…face…" She covered her mouth to try to hold back her laughter, but it only served to cause her shoulders to shake even more. "…the little…dance…"

Max stood and watched her in amazement, a huge grin plastered on his face. So this is what it was like to experience her laughter. Not the kind of laugh filled with mockery or taunting, but pure unbounded enjoyment. Her laugh had the most musical sound to it. He felt as if he could listen to it forever…even if the cause of her merriment was at his own expense. Max shook his head and began to laugh himself. He couldn't help it since her laughter was so infectious. "Yeah, I have to admit, I was pretty hot at the time."

Liz's laughter calmed as she smiled up at him suddenly. Warmly. Sincerely. "You didn't show it. At least, not to Dylan. Thank you for that." She said with genuineness realizing how Max's show of anger could have destroyed what little progress they'd made with Dylan if he'd but chosen to show it. In fact, had it not been for Max they wouldn't have made any progress with Dylan at all.

"What's a pair of pants compared to the heart of hurting child?" Max asked as he glanced away with a wave of his hand as if to dismiss her gratitude.

Liz was once again confused and overwhelmed at the heart she saw shining out of his eyes. She knew instantly the statement hadn’t been made to make an impression or win brownie points with her. He truly meant what he said. And it meant more to her than she’d ever expected it would. Maybe, just maybe, she really did have him all wrong...

Seeing the confusion in her eyes and deciding to take advantage of those shaky walls around her heart, Max decided to push his luck if even only a little. The mischief in his eyes was unmistakable. "Besides, I didn't get really hot until you came into the kitchen and started mentioning honey and children."

Liz blushed at the remembrance of her verbal slip earlier, but refused to be
overwhelmed by his words. "Well, you know what they say…if you can't stand the heat…" She began to quip with a sly grin.

"Oh, I can stand the heat." Max moved closer. His voice dropped in timbre. Gentle. Intimate. Vibrating with sensuality.

A heart began to pound. To thud, actually. Hard, irregular beats. Liz took a quick breath and backed away.

"In fact…" Max took another step. Slow. Deliberate. Steady. His gaze never wavering. Like a snake charmer intent on bending his subject to his will. "…I've been known to invent it."

A body flushed with a sudden fever. The pulse at the base of her neck began to roar in her ears. Liz blinked, swallowed hard and backed up again, this time bumping right into the low terrace wall. A light gasp escaped her and her hands flew back to steady herself.

Max grinned. A wolfish grin. The grin of a hunter who has captured his prey. The grin of a man who hadn't tasted a real meal in a very, very long time.

Giving Liz ample time to escape him, Max deliberately, slowly put both of his hands against the wall, each arm on either side of her waist blocking her in. Each hand covering hers. Looking intensely in her eyes, his voice lowered to a suggestive whisper. "The real question is…" A feather-light gaze dropped to Liz's lips before flicking back up to her eyes. "…how hot do you like it?"

The oppressive, sultry heat that descended around them was making it increasingly hard to breathe. And, for Liz, Max's burning amber eyes were making it absolutely impossible for her to think any coherent thoughts. For Max, her full, slightly parted lips were becoming difficult not to focus on. Max felt himself leaning forward. Liz felt herself falling. Both silently prayed they wouldn't break when the heaven they so desperately wanted to enter had ended and they inevitably hit the hellish ground of loneliness.

Then, like a god-send, a subtle shifting of Liz's body and the sound of crinkling paper reminded her of the presence of a hastily written note she'd tucked into her pocket before leaving her cottage and heading to meet Sean. It was a note from Kyle. Left on her bed, thanking her for her help and informing her that the time had come for him to leave.

The p.s. on the note is what caught her eye. For some reason, his final words held a note of warning Liz couldn't miss. Passion is a two-edge sword. To feel the glory, you must kiss the flame. But beware. If it kisses back, you just might be consume."

Liz finally managed to get out in a strangely breathless voice, a whisper shimmering with its own heat. "I…I don't. Fire has a nasty tendency to get out of control and…destroy everything in sight."

"Not the kind I'm talking about." Max said with a slight shake of his head. "No, the kind I'm talking about does nothing but create." He lightly ran a finger up the exposed flesh of her arm till it reached her shoulder where he began to make a small circular path with his thumb. Chills of fire danced across Liz's skin and her eyes drifted closed with a power beyond herself. "Passion. Pleasure."

His ebony eyes flicked back to her face as Liz's eyes opened to half-mast. Max's heart quickened at the sight of her radiance, turned up toward him, the moonlight dancing across her skin making it shimmer with an ethereal glow. Her velvet eyes were layered with stars and Max knew in that instant the spell he was trying to conjure was backfiring. Not because she wasn't falling. But because he was. Swiftly. Powerfully. Irrevocably.

His words proved that the moment they were uttered. "Even promises. The kind that keep you warm in the cold and give you something to hold onto when the sun doesn't shine. The kind that no fire can ever destroy. And no river can wash away. They're that untouchable."

Liz felt as if she were drowning in his eyes and his voice. She felt a fire burn with each lingering touch he left on her skin and a coldness that shocked her when his fingers lifted even for a second. Every cell in her body screamed to connect with this man standing before her. To feel the heat that his close proximity to her created. But he'd spoken that word. The one she swore she'd never believe in again...

"There's no such thing as untouchable, Max. Promises do nothing but break." Liz's eyes lost their shine and clouded with a haunting sadness and the tremble in her voice sent a stab right through Max's heart. A heart that was now the focus of her gaze as it wavered from his captivating eyes to the well-toned chest in front of her.

"Not mine." Max whispered quietly pulling her gaze instantly upward with the soft force of his words. "Give me the chance to prove it to you."

Clearing her throat, Liz squared her shoulders in a physical attempt to ward off the memories causing her sudden lack of faith. The emotions in her eyes were hidden behind lowered lashes, her voice soft and strained as she tried to focus on anything but his nearness. "The only…thing I want from you…is to know that you'll not hurt our children. Just…please, Max. Please leave them alone."

"Can you promise me that, Max?" Her pleading gaze raised to meet his. And with as soft, gentle gaze, he granted her request.

A hand gently reached up to cup the side of her face as Max made the most solemn promise he'd made in years. "Yes, Kendall. Yes, I can promise to not hurt your children." Max whispered with an inclining nod of his head as he recognized that fear in her eyes and saw how it held firm a moment before beginning to disolve away under the genuineness of his words. "And although I'm sure you'll insist on something legally binding, I in turn must insist that it be considered the first promise between us."

Liz pulled back from him, eyes narrowing with suspicion. "What…what are you talking about?"

Max grinned slightly and backed away from Liz, his demeanor swiftly changing from would be lover to in-control businessman. The time had come...finally. He reached into the breast pocket of his suit pulling out a thick envelope he'd been holding and adding to since the first day he'd walked into New Haven and handed it to her. "Read for yourself."

Liz slowly took the envelope from him her eyes taking on an uncertainty and wariness as she glanced back up at him before opening the envelope and pulling the contents out. Her brows furrowed with confusion as she looked over the first page that greeted her. "What is this?"

"That is the key to the New Haven Dock Renovation Project. It's a list of all the files, plans, contacts, everything that Evans Inc did regarding the project here in New Haven…you have complete access to all of it. My assistant's name is Barbara and her number is at the top. You give her a call and she'll send everything to you. Or if you want to take a trip to the office, she'll be more than happy to set you up. Make you copies. Set up meetings with our lawyers, contractors or whomever you might need to talk to. Whatever you need, its yours."

Max tucked his hands in satisfaction as he continued. "On the next page you will see the order I placed to have all plans for the take over to be halted." He watched as Liz flipped to the next page, her eyes quickly scanning the memo before her. "If you'll notice the date…"

Liz looked back down at the paper in her hands. Max watched as her luscious lips part with a gasp and her beautiful dark eyes flew over the words of the page. It was dated September 10th. The day she met him. Looking back up in his eyes, her own filled with surprise, Liz asked incredulously. "You drew this up the day we met?"

"Yes. The minute I found out the reason for your misplaced rampage against me, I called my lawyers and had them draw up this contract. I just haven’t had the chance to give it to you before tonight." A teasing light began to dance in his eyes. "See, I’ve been rather busy since coming to town...taking repeated showers and such.”

Still incredulous, Liz grinned sheepishly at his reference to the havoc their little war had caused him before she asked with wonder lacing every word. "Are you really serious about this?"

"Very." Max stated with seriousness before indicating another set of papers in Liz's hand. "Check out the next set of papers."

Liz fumbled excitedly with the papers in her hand and Max couldn't stop grinning at how adorable she was. This was the reason he'd wanted to be the one to tell her. That light in her eyes, the small catch in her breathing when each new item was before her…it was worth it all. The blackmail. What he knew he was going to lose once everything played out. At that moment, Max Evans wouldn't change a single thing. Because she was smiling.

Liz's mouth dropped open and her eyes raised to meet his. "It's…it's a contract."

Max nodded. "Yes."

"Between you and me."

"Yes."

"It says you won't do anything to touch the center or the property unless I give the say so." She began scanning the page again. "That you and your company will be subject to a lawsuit if this contract is broken."

Max folded his hands in front of him and pulled himself up to his full height. This was perhaps the most difficult part. Knowing the direction Edwin's blackmail would take him. Knowing it would cost him much more than the money Liz would win when she ended up suing him for breech of contract. Knowing it would cost the trust growing in her eyes that very moment.

"That's right. You never had anything to fear from me, Kendall. The Center is yours completely. Do with it what you want without fear of any takeovers. Not from me anyway. I don't want it. I never did. And I never pursue what I don't want." Max added the words laced with double meaning with a suggestive raise of his eyebrow.

Liz stared at him a moment, speechless, unsure if she could trust him. How could she? From everything she’s heard this man would do whatever it took to make a profit for himself. Yet how could she not trust him when everything she’d seen was just the opposite? Not to mention the legally binding contract she held in her hands...

Max grinned as he made an observation. "Well, this is certainly a first. I believe the lady is speechless. Feeling a little…" Max winked at her. "…'blown away', are we?"

Recognizing his words from earlier that morning and realizing this was his version of the second half of Round 3, Liz fought back the smile that threatened to break over her face. "Perhaps." She admitted as she looked back at the contract in her hands. Her eyes narrowed suddenly as her gaze flicked back to his face. "Wait a minute. What's the catch?"

"What makes you think there's a catch?" Max asked, a chuckle threatening to break loose.

"Because I know your type. Nothing is ever this simple with you. You never do something like this without an angle or a pay off of some kind." She folded her arms in front of her bracing herself against the payment he would exact knowing deep down inside she was accusing him of something he would never do. “So, exactly what service do you expect me to perform in exchange for this...contract of yours? Because I'm telling you now, if this is some twisted way of getting me out on a date you'll be very disappointed.”

"I've never had to blackmail a woman into a date with me in the past and I certainly don't intend to start now." Max stated with an air of offended arrogance. "Look, if you think that's what this is about, you don't know me at all." Max's voice softened instantly and his eyes took on a glow as they moved from the paper in her hand to her dark eyes so full of uncertainty and mistrust. "I may be ruthless when it comes to business…but it stops when that business would hurt innocent others. Like Dylan. Like you. That's not what I’m here for."

"Which brings up a good question." Liz said back. "What are you really here for, Max?"

Max paused a moment his desire for truth momentarily winning out over his desire for the game. "Would you believe me if I said I really don't know?" Max paused again wondering if he should even continue this conversation. Seeing the mistrust begin to drain from her eyes, but not enough to warrant a full-fledged opening of his heart, Max decided against it and added instead, "Look, there really is no catch, Kendall. I swear. There is, however, a request."

"Ah." Liz said with a nod of her head. "See, I knew this was too good to be true."

Max held up a finger to stop her protest. "No, now listen. This has nothing to do with that contract. As far as I’m concerned, I've given my word. So, that contract is legally binding whether you sign it or not. This request is a little more on the personal level."

"Personal." Liz repeated as she crossed her arms in front of her. She had no idea what to expect from him next.

"Yeah, personal. You think you can handle it?"

"I can handle anything." Liz retorted evenly even as her eyes flickered with a momentary hint of uncertainty.

"We'll see." Max responded back before unfolding his request before her. He pulled out one more envelope from inside his coat and handed it to her. "It's the contract with Emily Parker for the sale of Hardwick Industries. These were her terms. Don't ask why…because I don't know. She wouldn't say. But according to this you now own 49 percent of the company with my share being 51 percent."

Liz blinked rapidly as she stared at the paper before her. "W-what? You…you can't be serious. You…don't mean it. Max, I didn't pay for this…"

"Emily did." Max explained. "It's a gift. Free and clear. The stocks were transferred to your name this afternoon."

Liz's heart quickened in her chest. Emily? Her sister did that? Giving her stock in a company? A company that Max now owned? But why? Was it possible the bad blood between them was beginning to clear? "But…but I don't know anything about running a business…"

"You won't have to. Simply put, you don't have controlling share. I do." Max reached out and took one of Liz's reluctant hands and placed the document squarely in her grasp. "All you have to do is sit back and rake in the profits." The seriousness of Max's voice pulled her gaze upward to meet his. "Listen to me, Kendall. I don't care what you do with this, ok? You can toss it in your drawer at home and forget all about it or sell it back to Emily…or anyone else…for profit, for all I care. It doesn't matter. Just please do this one thing…please don't sell or give your portion away to anyone associated with EMG or the Graham family."

"Max…"

"I mean it." Max began to shake his head with determination. "The next time I do business with them it will be on my terms. Promise me that."

Bewilderment seemed to settle over Liz. "But, Max…you just…you just did business with them…"

"Promise me." Max's earnest plea rang in every note of his voice.

And Liz folded. Without further question. Without more argument. Perhaps it was the suddenly haunted look that had claimed his eyes again. Maybe it was the way he was still gently holding onto her hand. The compelling force of his simple request. Whatever it was, Liz was powerless to deny him. A silent nod was Max's immediate answer before her whisper confirmed it. "I promise."

Max blinked and swallowed hard as he released a relieved, shaky breath. "Good." He began to nod as his gaze drifted, the wheels once more turning in his head. "Very good."

A thought suddenly struck Liz. "You're leaving, aren't you? That's…that's what this is all about. The contract and the company…" She swallowed back the lump that had suddenly risen in her throat. "You're tying up loose ends so you can…"

Max's eyes snapped back to lock with hers as her sentence trailed off and immediately softened at the hint of sadness he saw so raw just waiting for him in the depths of her eyes. A faint, wry smile drifted over his lips not quite reaching his eyes. "Hey. It's ok. We'll still have quarterly reports and internal memos now that we own a company together."

"But…but what about our war?" Liz was beginning to grasp for straws and it was painfully obvious.

Oh, how Max wanted to grasp with her. But he'd made up his mind somewhere between talking about passion and making promises. It was for the best…for both of them…for him to leave. Kyle had been right. This fire was too hot to handle and he was already in too deep. Especially with Edwin Graham now on his back. The only thing that could make him consider staying now was Liz herself. And he seriously doubted that was about to happen…

Max smiled warmly, a teasing glint in his eyes. "You are a formidable foe, Ms. Blake. Definitely my equal in every tested arena. I'd say the battle was well fought on both sides. And now…it's time for a truce." Max answered back softly causing a slight dusting of color to rise on Liz's cheeks. Cheeks that Max couldn't resist touching just once more with a goodbye so near at hand.

She let him. "A…a truce?"

"Yeah." As his hands gingerly raised to lightly cup her face, Liz's eyes began once more to burn with fire. "Score's even. No harm. No foul. Equal victory is declared. Except for one thing…" Max's voice lowered, suggestive and teasing mixed to perfection in his expression. His gaze rested gently on those lips that had haunted his dreams marking with clear certainty the finish of his sentence. He licked his lips unconsciously, his intense gaze drawn back to hers. "So, what do you say, Kendall? Shall we seal this deal with a kiss?"

At the mere suggestion, a slow sexy grin spread across Liz's lips as she leaned forward slightly locking amused eyes with his. "A kiss to seal the deal? Come on, Max. Did you really think I would fall for that?"

"No." Max answered quickly with a slight shake of his head as his fingers absently stroked downward to her chin tilting it slightly upward, his gaze and thumb lightly running over her moist lips. "But you can't blame a guy for hoping. Especially since I'm not sure I can leave town without one…"

Liz's ebony eyes shimmered with hope and her question was a bare whisper. "You promise?"

Stars shot through Max's dark eyes and he swallowed hard, his dark head nodding once as his intense gaze met hers. Slightly. Definitively. Responding instinctively to the plea he saw deep in her eyes, the longing in her voice to believe in something that wouldn't break on her. Someone that wouldn't walk away.

Wheels in her head beginning to whirl, the instant amusement in Liz's dancing eyes moved to her lips as the corners of her mouth turned up slightly as her eyebrow raised. "I'll have you know that I don’t kiss just anybody."

Max grinned slightly as his eyes began to sparkle. "I'm not just anybody."

Liz linked flickering eyes with his unwilling to let him see how unnerved by the intensity of his gaze and the closeness of his body she was at that very moment. But her body betrayed her. Her face began to flush and her breathing became more shallow with each passing second as Max boldly brushed his fingers against her skin before tangling them in the long silky strands of her hair slowly pulling her whole body one step closer to him. A slight shiver ran through her and didn't go unnoticed by Max as a small knowing smile played on his lips when Liz bit down on her lower lip to stop any helpless sounds from escaping her.

Noticing the slightly smug look taking up residence in his eyes, admiration and desire flickered responsively in hers as she whispered. "You really are conceited." Her hands involuntarily moved from her sides like a magnet toward Max's pounding heart as she took a step closer leaning in slightly as if readying herself to taste the warmth of his lips on hers.

Max had to hold back a groan of his own when Liz shifted her hips to get even closer and brushed against him alerting him to exactly how close they were already standing. And just how excited this closeness was making him. Her fingers burned through the material of his shirt setting his heart on fire and starting a slow simmer in his veins. Jaws clenching for control and hands unconsciously, firmly pressing her forward from the base of her neck, Max fought the urge to attack her with every ounce of passion she'd managed to pull from the dark, fathomless depths of him.

"And you're luminous…" Max whispered back unsure if he could really believe what he knew was about to happen. He leaned forward his nose brushing lightly against hers in a gentle nudge and his eyes locking in on their target as their shallow breath mingled in the sliver of space between them.

He instinctively dipped his head. Smoothly, devilishly, Liz pulled back to put a finger against his readied lips. With a slight shake of her head and an unmistakable twinkle of mischief in her eyes Liz whispered, her breath warming his face. "Not so fast. Like I said, I don't kiss just anybody…and conceit is really not my thing."

She shrugged her shoulders with an air of dismissal, all hazy desire snapping out of her face as her expression registering a cool almost detached demeanor mixed with a hint of triumph. "Oh, and…truce?" Liz shook her head with a winning smile as she scrunched up her nose playfully. "Not in my vocabulary."

With that, she swiftly removed herself from Max's embrace and sidestepped him with the grace of a ballet dancer, causing him to almost lose his balance. He swept his hand over his closed eyes and dropped his head as he chuckled at himself for falling for her trick. She'd never intended to kiss him. She'd been in complete control of herself the whole time…unlike himself. And he was just now realizing it. What a woman. With a shake of his head, Max grinned as he turned and followed her footsteps back into the house. He had a feeling she wasn't quite done with him yet…

Liz strode into the house full of purpose, Alexhed over to Sean who was in the middle of getting a new plate of food, took the plate from his hands and placed it on the table in front of them. She glanced back over her shoulder to make sure Max had followed her inside, which of course he had. He had recognized that certain look in her eyes that told him she was up to something and he couldn't wait to see what she planning to do.

Being secure of Max's attention, Liz turned back to Sean suddenly and pulled his face to
her connecting their lips in the most passionate kiss Sean had ever experienced. The heated conversation of the room came to a screeching halt as Maria observed the kiss and hit Michael on the arm to get his attention. Michael's eyes widened and Maria's mouth dropped open at the public display of affection Liz was showering on Sean. Edwin's face flushed angrily as he suddenly came around the couch and began blustering at Liz.

"Just what do you think you're doing, young lady? This is an EMG board meeting not a boudoir!"

Liz pulled away from Sean but kept her arms firmly ensconced around his neck. "Oh, pipe down, Edwin. I was just showing my boyfriend how much I love him with some much needed affection."

Edwin raised a finger to her. "Love and affection have no place in this house!"

"You can say that again." Michael quipped as Maria rolled her eyes.

Marissa jumped in to the ensuing argument without hesitation as she came to stand in front of him with her hands on her hips. "This is my house, Edwin, and if my son's girlfriend wants to show the world how much she loves him then so be it. We could all use a little more feeling and a lot less restraint where our emotions are concerned."

"Oh, I don't know about that, Marissa." Charles retorted. "I think we have too many unrestrained emotions floating around as it is."

"That not what I meant, Charles, and you know it…."

As the new battle got underway, Liz allowed a secret smile to glide over her face. Well, she'd certainly gotten the family's reaction with that one. Unfortunately, their reaction wasn't the one she was most concerned with.

Her eyes instantly sought out those of the man whose benefit this whole performance had been put into production. As their eyes met, Max's began to twinkle as a slow admiring smile came to his lips. Eyes locked with hers, he bowed to her and raised his recently acquired champagne glass as if in a toast.

She inclined her head slightly accepting his silent praise with a decided look of triumph in her eyes. Turning back toward Sean she whispered something to him then exited the room leaving both men hungrily watching her every move.

He had to hand it to her. She'd played that role beautifully. So beautifully, in fact, that he was almost convinced by the performance. Pretending not to want him. Trying to make him believe the sudden passion she displayed was meant for Sean and Sean alone. And it would have worked had Max not seen the dazed look of surprise on Sean's face when she broke their kiss. Kisses like that from Liz were not the norm in this farce of a relationship. Of that on thing Max was sure.

Sean turned suddenly when he heard a voice at his elbow. "She's an extraordinary woman." Max commented still gazing at her retreating figure.

"Yes, she is." Sean retorted with a bit of wariness. "As you can see, I'm a very lucky man."

"It would appear that way." Max agreed before lobbing in his reason for approaching Sean in the first place. "Then again, you know what they say…appearances can be deceiving…" Max cast his casual, nonchalant gaze heavenward as if thinking. "…or something like that." Max nodded to Sean with a smirk seeing the instant doubt his words had placed in Sean's eyes. "If you'll excuse me, I see someone I need to speak with." Then he turned and headed in Celeste's direction.

Minutes later, Maria's voice sounded at Max's elbow. "Can I talk to you a sec?"

"Sure." Max answered as he said his good-byes to Celeste quietly then turned to face Maria.

"I noticed you and my best girl were out on the terrace quite a while together. You got any idea what that kiss was all about?" Maria asked as she immediately began her interrogation.

Max's smile deepened as his eyes followed Liz when she walked back into the room and hooked her arm through Sean's with a smile that touched her lips but somehow failed to reach her eyes. "Oh, that? That was her trying to prove a point or two to me."

"Really. And what exactly would those points be?"

Max shrugged. "Well, first it was to show me just how much she doesn't want me."

Maria watched Max watch Liz and she was suddenly struck with just how much adoration was shining out of his eyes. "And did she?"

Max chuckled and shook his head slightly. "Considering that my lips were almost where his were only seconds before, I'd have to say no. In fact, she just managed to prove the exact opposite."

Surprised by his frank admission Maria pressed further. "I see. And the second point?"

"That she can walk away even though she doesn't want me to."

Maria's eyebrow raised in surprise at his statement before her eyes took on an edge of concern. Regardless of her teasing and as much as she wanted to see Liz happy, Maria couldn't shake the sudden feeling that her getting involved with Max was going to be a lot more complicated then she'd originally thought. Especially after tonight's performance and Maria's growing suspicion that her best friend might be heading into water to deep to tread way too fast to keep from drowning, Maria bluntly asked an important question. "Can you?"

Max swallowed hard as his gaze moved from Liz to Maria's face full of concern. Answering her question with one of his own, Max inquired. "Why do you ask?"

Maria placed a cautioning hand on Max's arm. "Because if you can, you might want to."
Taking a deep breath and turning to stand in front of him, Maria continued. "Max. Despite the havoc you caused here for my Mickey G tonight, I like you. I do. But please be careful. That's my best girlfriend you have your eye on there. Don't make all of this so much of a game that when you win, she loses for good."

There it was again. That warning. That sign that says the water he was wading into could threaten to drown him. Or her. Or both. Max's eyes focused on Liz again. As she talked to Celeste, her eyes had taken on the sparkle that he was learning to anticipate so much.

Maria continued choosing her words carefully. "I just don't want her to give up something she already has to chase a dream that's gonna fly away on the next plane. She deserves better than that."

"Yes. She does." Max agreed readily before quietly asking a question, his gaze never leaving Liz's face. "Do you think she's happy?"

Maria's gaze followed his as she contemplated his suddenly serious question. "Truth? I think she's determined to be happy no matter what life brings her."

"Doesn't she deserve more?"

Maria put her hand on Max's arm to emphasize her point. "She deserves the best. And if she determines the best for her is you...just don't let her down."

Max nodded with an understanding smile. "Warning understood and received." As Maria nodded back and smiled slightly, Max stopped her with one more thought. "Oh, Maria? Thanks for being such a good friend to her."

Maria's dimples deepened as her smile lit up her face. "That's the easy part. Being part of this nuthouse is what's gonna drive me crazy one day."

Max began to chuckle. "I can understand why..."

"Nice entrance, by the way." Maria threw the compliment over her shoulder as she smiled and walked away.

Max smiled once more and glanced around the room. Liz was no where in sight, which was probably a good thing. Suddenly, he felt even more confused about her now than then he first arrived. Well, since it looked like his work here was done it was time to head home and think. He put his glass down and turned toward the terrace unseen.

Except by a pair of hungry dark eyes that took in his every move.
~~~~~~~~~~~~
2:30 am

Max slammed his hand down on the phone as it rang for the fifth time. Groggily picking it up, Max put the mouthpiece to his ear and spoke into the receiver. A yawn interrupted a clear pronunciation of his name. "M--Max…here."

"Max? Max is that you? I can't hear you…"

Max blinked his eyes and sleepily rubbed his hand over them. "Alex?" One eye squinted at the red light on the clock on the night stand. "God, Alex this had better be good…" Max struggled into a semi-sitting position and glanced at the phone when he realized how muffled Alex's voice sounded as he continued to call out to him. Quickly flipping the phone the right way, Max yawned again. "Alex…what in the world is so important that you'd wake me from the first semi-peaceful sleep I've had in…"

"Max. Shut up." Alex commanded and Max could almost imagine the roll of Alex's blue eyes on the end of the line. "Man, you are not going to believe who you have the hots for." Alex said into the phone excitedly.

Max sat up instantly awake, Alex's words and the excitement in his voice capturing Max's undivided attention. He blinked rapidly as a smile began to form on his lips. "You found out who she is?" Max asked with a hint of awe in his voice.

"Sure did, pal." Alex confirmed. "And I have to tell you, you have beyond impeccable taste."

"I could have told you that before." Max quipped with a grin before his impatience took control. "So, who is she?"

"Uh-huh." Alex answered unexpectedly. "Not unless you promise to introduce me to her."

Max's eyebrow raised as he let out a whistle. "Wow. This must big."

Alex sighed dreamily into the phone. "The biggest."

"So…" Max prompted.

"Promise."

Max started to chuckle at his friend's reaction to Liz's secret identity. "Ok, ok. I promise. Now tell me what you found out."

Silence greeted Max's request. Despite Alex's excitement he suddenly got the feeling that they were being listened to. Call it gut instinct or intuition, maybe even the little click he heard a few seconds ago had put him on alert. Whatever it was Alex was suddenly unwilling to take the conversation further especially with such sensitive information to divulge.

Trying to keep his voice light so as not to alert any possible eavesdroppers to his suspicion of their presence Alex glanced at his watch and made a suggestion. "Why don't I show it to you instead?"

"What?" Max asked in complete surprise.

"Yeah, why don’t I bring it to you? News this big has to be given in person so I can see your reaction. Besides, I want to make sure you keep that promise to introduce me."

Max's grin got wider. He hadn't seen Alex in a few years and was suddenly thrilled with the idea of spending a little bit of time with him again. Not to mention he was itching to get his hands on this information Alex had on Liz. "How soon can you be here?"

"I'm on my way. Over…" Alex said then waited for Max's routine response before hanging up.

"…and out." Max replied before hearing the line go dead. Leaning back against his pillows Max let out a contented smile. "Finally, Liz. Finally, I'll know who you really are…"
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
McKenna clicked off the recorder with a frown. "Damn." She let out a weary sigh and headed toward the window to look out at the few lights still shining in her secluded section of New Haven. "God, Max…that heart of yours just doesn't stop, does it? Somehow you manage to pick the ones who have the power to hurt you the most."

Her green eyes flashed with determination as her gaze drifted to the stars shining in the night sky and her shoulders squared with purpose. "Well, not this time, Max. I promise you with all I am, I will not let her destroy you…" A tear slipped down her cheek unbidden as her whisper filled the empty, lonely room. "…not like I did."

Tbc…
posted on 21-Oct-2001 6:13:57 PM
~ chapter 18 ~

Michael replaced the phone, locked eyes with Liz and shook his head solemnly.

Hanging her head to hide her disappointment, Liz let out a deep sigh. "I don't understand this, Michael. Max told me that Emily gave me that stock."

"Max lied." Michael stated simply.

Liz's head snapped up and her eyes filled with confusion. "Are you positive? I mean, is there any way that…"

"Liz. Emily told me point blank that she sold that company to Max and Max alone. She had no conversations about dividing shares, no discussions about the dock project and definitely no mention of your relationship. Or Kendall. Or the Center." Michael leaned forward. "Liz, he lied to you. My guess is this isn't the first time. My guess is he's playing a game with you since the day he walked into town…"

"But why, Michael?" Liz's dark head began to shake in confusion. "It just doesn't make sense. Not this kind of game. Not with multi-million dollar corporations and split stocks. I mean, think about it. Why would Max hand me a contract that leaves him and his company wide open for a lawsuit if he had real designs on taking over the Center? I mean, would you?"

Michael chuckled and shook his head. "I wouldn't even hand you a contract like that if I was being sincere."

Liz continued as if not having heard him. "And why would he, in essence, give me half of a company and tell me my sister gave it to me." Her eyes widened in fear. "Unless…"

"No. Don't even go there." Michael immediately contradicted the thought he saw fly through her mind. "There's no possible way Max could know about you. None. I mean, I'll be the first to admit that he's good, but your tracks have been covered for too long and too deep." His warm brown eyes narrowed in concern. "Unless he's made himself a tad too irresistible and maybe you've let something slip…"

Instant fire flashed in Liz's eyes as she jumped up from her seat. "Are you crazy? You think I would take a risk like that with not just my life but everyone else's just because some hot guy suddenly drops into my life and starts to make a complete nuisance of himself?"

"I don't know, Liz. I certainly haven't seen you look at anyone the way I saw you looking at Max last night. Not even Chris. And we both know how that turned out…"

"Stop right there, Michael." Liz crossed her arms in front of her, her chin raising defiantly. "Max is nothing like Chris."

"Oh, no?" An eyebrow raised as Michael leaned back in his chair. "Let's take inventory, shall we? They're both ruthless. Both very arrogant. Power-hungry…"

Liz took a step forward, her voice lowering with determination. "I mean it, Michael. Unless you're about to produce evidence that Max Evans is a mobster who kills people for a living then I think you need to stop the comparisons right this minute. Look, I know everything there is to know about master manipulators. I was married to one, remember? I know exactly what kind of man Max is. I know he's a player. And I know he's ruthless, but he is nothing like Chris."

Michael let out a low whistle as he shook his head in disappointment. "Man, he never ceases to amaze me. Of all the women in the world that I thought would be immune to the likes of him it would be you." A wry, almost disbelieving smile touched Michael's lips. "But he's done it. He's managed to waltz in here and hook you…"

"I am not hooked, Michael." Liz refuted stubbornly. "I just…he isn't perfect. I know that. But neither are you. This ruthlessness you talk about…you're just the same when it comes to business and I've watched you, Michael. I've watched you wheel and deal and you love the game just as much as Max does. So, don't start trying to get all holy on me with this."

"And don't ever, ever try to tell me he's like Chris. Ever again. There wasn't one single gentle bone in Chris' body, but there is in Max. I've seen it myself. When he doesn’t know anyone is looking. When his guard is down and…and…he's with a child…"

Spinning away from him, Liz agitatedly headed toward the window to look into the morning light that shone over the city of New Haven. Her eyes squeezed shut and her heart began to ache at the memories flooding her mind. At the possibility that every single moment with Max had been a game the night before.

No, she couldn't believe that. She couldn't believe there hadn't been moments of sincerity. Slivers of time where his heart was open and giving. Liz Parker was the first to admit that words could be deceiving, but eyes didn't lie. And Max Evans' eyes had spoken truths to her that Liz simply couldn't deny any more.

Hesitantly, Michael came from around his desk to stand beside Liz, slipping a comforting arm around her shoulder and pulling her in to him. Her voice was soft and strangled when she finally spoke. "Chris was…the worst nightmare…that ever lived, Michael. Cold and callused. A complete monster."

She swallowed back the memories and switched mental gears. "Like him or not, there is a gentle beauty in Max that just won't go away. No matter how hard he may try to hide it. No matter how hard we try to make it." Her voice hardened as she glanced up at Michael sideways. "Ruthlessness and pure evil are two entirely different things, and you need to learn the difference between them."

"You're right, Liz." Michael agreed softly pausing a moment before continuing. "I just…I get worried about you, you know? I don't want to see you hurt again and…" Michael let out a sigh. "Look, I know you don't want to hear this, Liz." Michael ventured slowly beginning to understand a little more where Liz might be coming from. "From what Maria has told me, I know you've been having fun the last few days and I'm sure this attention Max seems to be showing you is all very exciting."

His brotherly concern edged his voice. "But I've seen him operate before. Women are his first target. And you just happen to be pretty connected to the movers and shakers in this town. Namely, us. EMG and the Grahams. Now, if you give him the chance, Max will use you to get whatever it is he wants. And once he's got it, he will drop you like a hot potato."

"Now, I don't know exactly what his game is with this docks deal, but whatever is going on…you need to be very careful of him. I know he can be charming and I know he's very flattering and God knows I'd love nothing better than for you to find someone other than Puppy Dog, as Max called Sean, but…"

Turning to Michael suddenly, Liz began to shake her head more emphatically this time. "Alright, Michael. I got the point. Max can't be trusted. But you need to get mine as well. I'm telling you right now this…what he's done, what he gave me last night…it doesn't make sense. It just…Michael, it just doesn’t."

Shrugging out of his embrace, Liz turned suddenly to face him. "Look, I’ve got to go. I've got to find out what's going on…"

"Liz…" Michael's warning voice followed Liz as she headed toward the door.

Stopping short, her hand on the doorknob, Liz's back stiffened like a steel rod preparing for the worst. "Did…Emily even…ask how I was?"

Michael let out a sigh, his mind racing to find the right words. "You know, Liz, I'm sure she had a million things…"

Liz turned to Michael with a sad smile. "It's ok, bro. You're not married to her any more. You don't have to make up excuses for her."

"Liz, I…"

"I'm glad you're part of my family, Michael. The one not made from blood ties. The only true one I've ever known." Liz's smile widened as tears shone in her eyes. "Don't worry about me. I'll be careful with Max. He can't use what I don’t give him."

Michael nodded. "Right." Liz closed the door softly behind her just missing Michael's whispered prayer. "I hope you’re really right."
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
"Five--five---five---two---nine---seven----" Liz's finger hovered over the last digit of Max's phone number as she struggled whether to push that final button or not. The 'not' having won out Liz put the phone handset back down on the cradle and let out a sigh.

"You are such a hypocrite, Liz Parker." Liz said to herself out loud. Her thoughts turned to last night's conversation with Sean after her tantalizing tête-à-tête with Max on the terrace…


"Sean, you really shouldn't worry about what Edwin says. You know you do a good job for EMG. He knows it. Even Michael knows it. They also know how much it bothers you to not be noticed for all you do for them. The best way to beat them is to go about your business and not let them get to you."

Sean's voice took on an edge. "Well, what about him?"

"Him who?" Liz asked knowing the answer before seeing it reflected in Sean's eyes.
"Oh, you mean Max."

"Yes, Max." Sean confirmed. "I don't like him. I don't like the way he talked to me and I certainly don't like the way he looks at you."

Liz looked away as she felt her cheeks begin to burn again. Her heart cried out 'I love the way he looks at me' but knowing she couldn't confess what she was really thinking…not that she was even ready to confess it, Liz forced a smile and attempted to calm Sean's ruffled nerves. "Look, Sean. I know he comes off pushy and arrogant, but it really doesn't sound like you'll have to deal with him that much. It looks like Michael and Edwin are going to get that job. And as for the way he looks at me...well, I'm not even sure what you mean..."

"Oh, please, Kendall. Don't tell me you don't know what I'm talking about because…" Sean paused as he contemplated his next words. He wanted to finish the sentence by saying 'I saw the way you looked back at him' but saying them out loud would make them all that more real. So he chose another route instead. "…because it was pretty damn hard to miss." Sean shot back in frustration and jealousy.

Liz turned to Sean and took his hands in hers as she tried to ignore the twinge of jealously she suddenly felt at the thought she was about to convince Sean of. "I'm…sure he's like that with a lot of women. You said it yourself….he's a playboy. The love 'em and leave 'em type. We all know that so forget about him. He doesn't strike me as the kind of man who stays long enough in one place to establish a lasting relationship anyway."

Sean let out a sigh. "I know. It's just..." He turned toward Liz and took her face in his hands. "You're so beautiful, do you know it? There are so many times I wonder what a woman like you is doing with someone like me. I love you so much..."

Liz smiled and took his hands away from her face to hold them in her own. "You think I don't know that? I do, Sean. And it means more to me than you'll ever know. You mean more to me than you'll ever know."

Liz continued her voice getting stronger as her pre-conceived notions of Max began to over-ride any feeling he'd stirred up in her. "You want to know why a guy like Max doesn't have a chance at winning my heart? Because I can't count on him to be there when it really matters. I never have that fear with you. I never have to try to guess what you're going to do next or wonder how badly my heart will break if you ever walk away. Especially not after all we've been through. You're one of my best friends. You make me feel safe. And that means more to me than I can ever really say..."



Liz let out a sigh. Yes, safe is definitely what he felt with Sean. Not scared or uncertain. Not excited or nervous. Not…alive. Like she was finally breathing again.

Try as she might she couldn't deny that Max's presence had made her feel…something. She wasn't quite sure how to describe all the contrary emotions racing through her, but she knew it was powerful and unlike anything she'd felt with anyone in the past…including Sean. No, especially Sean. Max had been right when he'd said she'd come alive when he walked into the room. Every fiber of her being stood at attention and was completely alert to his every look, word and movement.

Which is why she felt like a hypocrite. She was Sean's girlfriend. Had been for two years. She shouldn't be feeling this kind of attraction to someone she barely knew. And that kiss she'd shared with Sean was intended for another. She'd finally admitted that fact somewhere between her 2:00 and 3:00 tossing this morning. She just hope Max hadn't realized the same thing. Then he'd know what kind of a liar she was…

Then again, it wasn't like she'd lied to Sean when they'd talked later. Max wasn't the type of man that would stick around for long and because of it he was exactly the type of man she'd never let herself fall for. On the other hand, just the thought of not looking into his deep amber eyes again drove Liz to pick up the handset once more.

"Five---five---five---two---" Liz slammed the phone down again and ran her fingers nervously through her hair. What was she going to say? 'Sorry to bother you, Max, but I just wanted to make sure I'd get my daily fix of you? When are you coming in?' She let out another sigh and leaned back in her chair with a groan of frustration.

A knock on the door caused her to call out a half-hearted invitation. V stuck her head in the door and unwittingly offered Liz the reason she needed to contact Max. "Kendall? Sorry to bother you, but I think we have a slight problem. We have no one to handle the 'D' kids this afternoon."

"What do you mean? Isn't Connie supposed to be scheduled for today?" Liz asked as she leaned forward and pulled out her schedule for the different children's groups.

"She is, but she called in sick."

"Oh. Well, what about Isabel? Sometimes she fills in for us." Liz suggested.

V shook her head. "Already checked. She has court this afternoon."

Liz let out a little sigh as she flipped through some files. "I'd do it, but I have a meeting for MLK then. What about..."

"What about Max?" V offered enthusiastically. "Yeah, you know...he was really good at helping you find Dylan the other day..."

Liz looked up at her sharply. "Max? You've got to be kidding me. There's no way he could handle..." A sly smile spread over Liz's lips as a mischievous glint flashed in her eyes. "Max, huh?" She steepled her hands in front of her as the wheels in her mind began to turn. "Yeah. Yeah, I think Max would be the perfect person to handle the 'D' group."

A wide smile spread over V's face. "Great! I'll go call him now..."

"Uh…V." Liz stopped V with a raised hand. "This whole…Max situation…is a little…delicate, I guess you could say. I think it'd be best if I gave him a call this time."

Liz's words instantly erased the smile from V's face. "Oh. I see. Well, alright. Do you need his phone…"

"Nope. Got the number right here." Liz said as she cut V off effectively ending V's reason to be in her office. As soon as V closed the door Liz punched the air in victory mouthing the word 'yes' then did a silent little 'Liz dance' in her seat. After a moment of revelry she took a deep breath and cleared her throat. A bright grin spread over her face as she reached for the phone. "Five---five---five---"
~~~~~~~~~
Max had come to a decision: he was leaving New Haven.

Not next week. Not in a few days. But tonight.

Despite the fun he'd been having. Despite the powerful attraction to Liz that made him want to just plant roots until he had extracted that promised kiss from her. Despite the payback he would love to dump on Edwin. One fact remained…

There really was no good reason for him to be hanging around any more. In fact, it was completely opposite of his nature. He'd delivered his peace offering to Liz as originally intended. He'd arranged everything so that when the Center was taken over, Liz would have at her disposal everything she needed to get the new property up and running. Alex would be arriving in the afternoon with the information on Liz effectively bringing to close that intriguing portion of his journey. Edwin's blackmail made it almost dangerous to remain. Not to mention the trouble Kyle was in because of him.

For all involved, it was the best decision. Max figured he could kill two birds with one stone by showing Liz the new property and introducing her to Alex in the afternoon then…he would hit the road.

To ensure that the chances for changing his mind were narrowed, Max decided to get as much packed as possible. That way, all he had to do was grab his bag and head out of town. Never looking back.

The problem was, it was already mid-morning and Max was making little to no progress in that plan to pack up. For some reason his feet moved more slowly than he willed them, his hands refused to fold his clothes the right way, and he found his mind constantly wandering to last night…and the way Liz's eyes lit up the moment she saw him walk in the door.

He had to get out of this town. He knew he did. Yet, the memory of Liz's eyes last night dancing with mischief and laughter or how they glowed when he said her name caused him to shake his head and wonder how he would ever be able to walk out the door and never look back.

Max tossed the rest of his socks into the open suitcase on the bed then turned to grab his suits from the closet. The ringing of the phone caused Max to pause mid-stride. He walked to the phone and grabbed it up on the second ring as he carefully laid his suits on the bed. "Max here."

"Kendall here." Liz said into the phone as her heart did an unexpected little flip-flop at the sound of his voice. "Whatcha doing?"

Max's eyebrows raised in surprise and confusion. Liz was the last person he'd expected to hear from this morning. Not sure he wanted her to know his immediate plans and wanting to see where this conversation might take them Max answered as vaguely and in as cavalier attitude as possible. "Planning my future. Want to be included?"

A slow smile spread across Liz's lips as she leaned back in her chair her eyes beginning to dance with delight. She was amazed at how easy it was to flirt with this man she'd barely known over a week. How natural to pick up from last night's conversation as if she hadn't told her boyfriend he was the only one in her life. "Depends. How far into the future are we talking?"

Max sat down on the bed and leaned back against the headboard as he grinned suddenly unable to stop himself from starting this flirtatious banter despite the sirens going off in his mind telling him that this was dangerous ground to be treading. Especially since he'd now made his iron-clad decision to leave. "How far into the future do you want to go?"

"Weeell, I'd say the rest of our lives is out since I doubt your attention span is that long…"

"Ouch." Max said as his eyes began to twinkle. "And I suppose seizing the moment and living in the here and now is out since you're there, I'm here and you've already shown me your version of instant gratification last night."

"What? Not to your liking?" Liz asked knowing his reference was to the kiss she gave Sean the night before.

"Let's just say it wasn't as satisfying for me as my suggestion would have been." Max countered as his voice lowered suggestively.

Liz's nose crinkled as a smile lit her eyes. "Remind me what that suggestion was..."

"Sealing our deal with a kiss." Max piped up more than willing to comply with her request.

"But I did seal it with a kiss." Liz countered as she picked up a pencil and began twirling it between her fingers at amazing speed, a habit she'd had and perfected since childhood.

"Yes, but I think both of us know that kiss landed on the wrong lips."

Liz dropped the pencil. Damn! He knew. Think, Liz, think. You can't let him believe that kiss was meant for him. Suddenly she felt very hot and clammy and when she spoke her voice came out in as strangely distant and uncertain. "I'm…I'm sure Sean would disagree with you."

Hearing the change in her voice, Max knew he'd gotten to her and responded dryly with a slight grin. "Sean would disagree with a statue of a monkey if he thought it would gain points with you." Taking a deep breath and softening his voice perceptibly Max took a step onto some very thin ice hoping all the while he wouldn't fall in… "Besides, Sean wasn't out on that terrace with us only a few moments before and he certainly didn't see the way your eyes danced in the moonlight when you looked at me."

His voice lowered to a new softness, taking on a layer of unconcealed desire. "He didn't hear your breathing turn seductively ragged and he didn’t feel your heart pounding away in your chest when my arms slipped around you. Had he been, I'm sure he would have thought differently of that kiss…"

Liz swallowed hard at the truth of Max's words as she closed her eyes and instantly pictured the way Max had looked the night before…extraordinarily--yummy, for lack of a better word. No wonder he saw something in her eyes despite the fact she tried to hide it. No wonder she was thanking her lucky stars that Sean hadn't been out on that terrace with them. He would have certainly come to the same conclusion Max had…she'd never wanted to kiss anyone more in her life than she had on that terrace last night while gazing into Max's eyes. She knew it. For that matter…apparently so did he.

Realizing she's allowed too long of a pause between Max's assumption and her own answer, Liz felt her defenses rise instantly. Defenses she couldn't afford to allow him to see right now. Not if she was going to get him down to the Center by this afternoon. Swallowing her desire to deny the obvious truth and biting back a sarcastic reply that sprang to her mind, Liz cleared her throat and changed the focus of their conversation to less dangerous ground. "Speaking of points, I don't think you gained any last night with the Grahams."

"I wasn't trying to." Max tried to hide his disappointment by informing her curtly. He saw she was going to ignore his obvious attempt to address her contradiction of actions the night before and for some reason it made him want to prove his point even more. "In fact, the only points I've been keeping track of lately are the ones I've scored against you."

"I see. And where are we exactly on that score?" Liz asked in a suddenly uncertain voice. Max's clipped response made her wonder why she'd called him in the first place when all she seemed to be able to do was put a chill in his voice.

"Well, I tried for a truce, but you would have none of it." Max answered with a sound of a grin instantly returning to his voice when reminded of their little game. "So, I'd say we are currently tied."

Liz let out a quiet sigh of relief as her eyes once more took on that mischievous glint that was becoming all too familiar lately. "Really? And have we decided what exactly will determine who wins?"

Max's chuckle into the phone sent a wave of warmth flowing through her. "Didn't you know? Who wins has already been determined. The real question is when do I get the prize?"

Liz let out a laugh herself as she picked up the pencil again and began absently drawing on a blank piece of paper in front of her. "You really are way too conceited for your own good. But…let's for sake of argument say you do win…what kind of prize are you looking for?"

"A kiss."

A beaming smile lit Liz's face as she struggled to keep it from making it to her voice. "Just a kiss? That's rather…" Liz paused as if searching for the right word. "…mundane…don't you think?"

"Oh, now that was obviously spoken by someone who has never experienced the Max Evans Special K." Max commented glibly with a roll of his eyes.

Liz laughed into the phone and scrunched her nose up. "The Max Evans Special K? What are you now, a cereal? Flaky and soggy when wet?"

"That's really cute. And nicely delivered, by the way." Max commented sarcastically before moving on to explain. "But actually, it's a nickname for one special kiss of mine. Makes a body feel very healthy. Gives you energy for any type of…" Liz could almost picture the suggestive wiggle of his eyebrows and kicked herself for feeling her inside begin to tremble. "…rigorous activity one might have planned for a long weekend retreat. That kiss of course proceeds the Lethal Weapon kiss. You know the one that destroys any and all inhibitions while you're tucked away on a deserted island or…"

"Wait." Liz interrupted quickly already beginning to feel a spike in her temperature with all the talk of long weekends, deserted islands and kisses from Max Evans. "You give your kissing techniques nicknames?"

"Actually, no. One of the models I've had the…" The next word was dripping with sarcasm. "…pleasure to spend time with did." Glancing up at the ceiling, Max tried to picture the name of the woman who'd spent the entire weekend babbling on about nonsensical things. One of those being all the different types of kissing she had experienced on her travels throughout the world. That had been an excruciatingly long weekend that Kyle set up for him with an airhead that wouldn't shut up. A weekend Max still owed Kyle payback for. "I think that was…Bambi…"

"Bambi." Liz repeated as a pang of jealousy shot through her. Her voice hardened slightly. "Real rocket scientist you're dating there, Max."

Max chuckled. "When did I use the word 'date'?"

Liz's next seriously stated comment drained the smile from Max's face. "You don't fool me, you know."

An eyebrow raised and Max's mind fought to find what he might have said to clue her in to whatever it was she was thinking about him. "Is that so?"

"Yeah, that's so." Liz responded promptly and uncharacteristically personal on her honesty. "This playboy you try to be. It's all an act. I know you have a heart, Max. And something tells me you're a one-woman man all the way. The question is…who was the woman that makes you want to hide it so bad?"

Max's eyes squeezed shut and he swallowed hard. With memories so fresh in his mind, Max couldn't keep the image of McKenna's face from flashing before him. Her name was just on the tip of his tongue. And there was actually a part of Max that wanted to just open up the floodgates of his past and let everything come tumbling out.

But there was also that other part. The one that had been closed down way too long to just explode wide open with a blast of unfailing trust. There were too many risks. Personal and otherwise to just let go and fly into the face of certain horror and rejection.

Max edged his expression with a hint of a pained smile before forcing words past a suddenly tight throat. "Actually, I think the real question on the table is…what do I want for a prize when I win this little game of ours."

Liz bit back her disappointment at his deft maneuver of switching topics before moving to more manageable ground. She'd been a fool to think he'd open up to her on that subject. And an even bigger fool to want him to. Perhaps it was an effort to understand him better. To be able to discern what was going on his that head of his when he handed her the means to destroy him with nothing more than a shrug and a smile. Then again getting to know too much of Max just might end up being a fatal thing for a heart that was suddenly softening under the shower of his attention.

"Right. So…real prize." Liz's voice softened and her eyes took on a delightful twinkle. "Tell me what you really want, Max."

"I'd say 'you', but we've already gone down that road and the suggestion has been firmly rejected." Max's grin was slow and relieved that Liz let the previous too-close-for-comfort subject go…momentarily. "For now."

"Again with the arrogance." Liz rolled her eyes. "You know, getting an answer out of you sometimes is like pulling teeth. You're worse than the kids. I might just have to put you in 'time out' for failure to directly answer the question."

Max leaned his head back against the headboard as his eyes drifted shut and his voice lowered huskily, intimately. "Does this 'time out' of yours include an amazingly sexy volunteer coordinator to play with?"

The double meaning of Max's words and the seductive timbre of his voice stopped Liz's heart mid-beat. Oh, how she'd love to go down that road, but unfortunately, it was a little too close to the cliff of despair to even consider. Letting out a shaky breath, Liz cleared her throat. "Uh…no, no it doesn’t. But it does include a lot of time to sit and consider the error of your ways. The consequences of your many crimes. The aftermath of your obnoxious behavior…"

"Ok. Ok. I got the point." Max interrupted with a shake of his head and a wry smile making its way to his voice. "You know, some people just don't know how to have fun any more."

"And some people can't seem to decide what they want."

And Max's voice dropped even lower. To a whisper. A shimmer of desire that floated across the phone line to Liz and sent a shiver of delight racing through her. "Oh, I definitely know what I want from you."

Liz gulped. "Then tell me."

"Well, let's see…" Max commented as if he were thinking. If she could have seen him right in that moment, she would have thought him absolutely adorable. He had the cutest little boy look on his face as he put his index finger up to his chin, a sure indication that he was thinking. "… it must be something I don't already have…"

Suddenly Max's eyes began to dance as an idea struck him. A way to throw her for a loop and give him the one thing that was suddenly becoming very important to him. "I've got it. The prize will be one complete day to give me the chance to put a smile on your face."

"A smile?" Liz asked as her hand paused in the creation it had been weaving on her note pad and her nose scrunched up in confusion. "Seriously? Isn't that rather…simple? I mean, it's not like I haven't smiled since you've been here…"

"Oh, no. I'm not talking about the regular run-of-the-mill kind of smile you plaster on your face when you're aware of everyone's eyes on you. Or one that says you're mildly amused with what's going on around you."

Max paused as the memory of Liz's laughter the night before filled his mind. "No, I'm talking about a burst of joy that comes from deep inside of you. One that that not only touches your lips but you just can't keep from shimmering in your eyes no matter how hard you try. It won't disappear the moment your back is turned because something has touched you deep within your soul." Max answered with unexpected sincerity. "I want to make you smile like no one else in the world has ever made you smile before. Give me that and I'll have need of nothing else."

Liz felt her breath catch in her throat at the genuineness she heard in his voice. "You…you certainly don't ask for much, do you?" Liz breathed quietly into the phone.

Max shrugged and shared one of his many world-savvy philosophies with her. "Why should I ask for an acre of land when I can have the world?"

"The world, huh? I had no idea a smile would mean that much to you." Liz commented softly as she felt her heart continue to do these weird little flip-flops with each word he spoke. He was doing it again. He was making her feeling things she wasn't prepared to feel. Want things she shouldn't be wanting.

"It would if it was yours." Max responded with equal softness in his voice as his fingers absently moved along the patterns of the bedspread on his bed.

Liz let out the breath she'd been holding and closed her eyes unable to discern the tumultuous feelings he was stirring up in her. Deciding now would be a really good time to get to the real purpose of her call, Liz continued with Max's theme turning it slightly to her advantage. "It may not be the world, but I know one way you can definitely make me smile. Agree to a request of mine."

"Why do I get the feeling I'm about to be hit with Round 5?" Max asked as his paranoia instantly kicked into overdrive. That had been entirely too easy.

"Now why would you possibly think that?" Liz asked in mock surprise as she bit back a chuckle.

Max shrugged. "Oh, I don't know. First of all you called me and that's something you've never done before. Secondly, you're being way too amenable which is the complete opposite of your nature. This request must be pretty big…"

"It's huge." Liz responded.

Max crossed his arms across his chest. "You realize after the copier and the kitchen this is going to take a lot of convincing on your part."

"I can be very persuasive when I need to be." Liz countered. "So, are you up for the request?

"Go for it."

"We have a bit of an emergency here at the Center and need your help desperately."

"Emergency? Desperately? Does this mean if I ride to the rescue you'll be in my debt?"

"No. Debts can be paid." Liz answered quickly. "What I'm offering you is much more lasting."

"Sounds intriguing. Continue." Max prompted with a raised eyebrow.

"A chance to prove yourself."

"How so?" Max asked.

"Last night you handed me a contract saying that you'd never do anything to hurt innocent people for business. I'm not only giving you the chance to back that statement up, I'm giving you the chance to improve on it by not only not hurting but actually helping innocent children around you. Think of the investment. Helping one child who needs you now can be equated to helping generations of children ever after. After all, the children are our future, you know."

"Ohhhh, that was nice. Trying to play on the community spirit and 'leaving a legacy' angle." Max complimented Liz on her first line of attack before refusing. "No sale. Sorry to say that, in and of itself, will not work for me. I'm sure you've heard enough about my reputation by now to know that I require a little more...uh, personal incentive, I guess you could say. Especially when the risks are so great for another sneak attack..."

"Personal incentive." Liz mutttered under her breath as her mind raced to find a topic she could grab and run with. Max's smile deepened as admiration flashed in his eyes when he heard her mumble to herself then quickly launch into her next assault. She was definitely not a woman to give up easily when she set her mind to something. He liked that. It reminded him of…well, him.

Having hit upon an idea, Liz began her next attempt at persuasion like a used car salesman unwilling to give up without a sale. "Reputation. Glad you mentioned it. Have you considered how improved your reputation would be? " Liz's voice turned patronizing as she forced a smile into her expression that Max heard straight through the phone line. "I mean, I know you aren't the cold-blooded shark everyone thinks you are. Soon everyone else will know it too. It will open doors for you never dreamed of before. The business community needs such…" She paused a moment casting her eyes upward searching for the right word. "…shining examples of humanitarianism from such a captain of industry as yourself."

"Go on." Max prompted as his eyes began to sparkle. Amazing how good she was at trying to convince him of something he knew she herself didn't believe.

Hearing Max's prompt Liz continued her sales pitch. "Not to mention the lifetime of personal satisfaction derived from your good deeds. Think about it...with a simple 'yes' you will provide an invaluable service that the Center will be forever grateful for. Not to mention the joy that the children's little smiles will bring. They'll worship you. You, Max Evans, will be their hero."

Max rolled his eyes and playfully asked, "Improved reputation? Eternal gratitude? Hero worship? Is that all you have to offer? Come on, Kendall, I'm sure you can do better than that..."

Liz grinned at the teasing tone in his voice and got down to real business as she began her serious negotiations. "Alright. No planned sabotage."

"I notice the qualifier 'planned'. Is that your way of hinting that I shouldn't wear a suit today?" Max asked his own eyes taking on the steely glint of negotiator.

"And they say you're slow..."

"Cute. I still don't hear the magic words."

"Magic word? You mean like 'please'? Is that the magic word you're looking for?"

"It's nice but not quite what I need to hear."

"Can you give me a hint?" Liz asked as she leaned forward across her desk resting her face on her hand as a smile started to spread over her face.

"Well, you've told me about the children and how they need me. You've even gone so far as to assert that I can affect the future of generations of Americans to come. And, of course, how the center and the community needs me not to mention that the entire business world is counting on me to be their…how did you put it? Shining example." Shaking his head Max continued. "But what I haven't heard is what you need. Or better yet, what you want."

Liz swallowed and recited the pat answer she'd repeated to herself so many times. "I want what the Center needs…someone to help us with this crisis."

"Not good enough." Max informed her before asking the question that got to the heart of the matter for him. "Why me?"

Liz sat speechless for a moment as her mind raced to find a reason that would be plausible without revealing her real goal of seeing his smiling face today. "Well, I…um…I think that you…" Liz paused and took a nervous breath in an effort to stall for a little bit of time. She even surprised herself with the words that came out of her mouth in explanation. "I…I wanted you…"

Liz's eyes closed in mortification when she realized how that must have sounded and knowing how Max would take it. Liz rushed to explain. "I mean…well, what I was really trying to say was…"

A look of satisfaction passed over Max's face as he punched the air in victory. True, by the way her voice trailed off she'd probably meant something completely different when she said the words, but it didn't really matter. Max had known his plans to leave today were toast the second he'd heard her voice on the other end of the phone. More importantly, she said she wanted him just now. Right in this moment, that's all Max needed to hear. "Kendall. Relax." Max commanded with a grin. "Just tell me when to be there…"

Tbc…

posted on 21-Oct-2001 6:16:20 PM
~ chpt 19 ~

McKenna clicked the recording device to 'off' with a decided air of irritation. The whole conversation had been ridiculous. Liz playing hard to get…how stupid was this girl anyway? She had Max, of all the men in the world, suggesting they get involved and she was dumb enough to turn him down for…of all people, Sean Graham. And Max…he'd been almost as bad. Chasing after her with his flirtatious words and suggestive tone.

She tossed her earphones on the table and got up from the table in agitation. Maybe this assignment wasn't going to be as easy as she thought. Hearing Max's voice again…maybe even seeing him again...

McKenna went to the window and looked out onto the alley behind her building. It was dead except for the yellow cat that played in one of the many garbage cans in search of food. Her mind drifted back to her distant past. Her childhood. She'd been hungry like that once…looking anywhere for food. Doing anything to get it. That was before she found she had certain talents that people would pay top dollar for. Before the term 'filthy rich' came to be applied to her.

The sunlight streamed through the window pane to dance on the bed. McKenna turned as her green eyes misted suddenly. Max. Dancing sunlight always made her think of him. If only things had been different. If only she hadn't been who she was…

Impatiently wiping away her tears, McKenna grabbed her purse. She had to get out of here for a while. She needed to see the two of them together. There was no doubt the second she laid eyes on them she'd be able to tell just how serious he was about her. She knew all too well how Max looked when he was in love. Only then could she concentrate on the job at hand and how best to proceed. Knowing Max's heart would be the only way she could tell how best to rip this twit from his life for good.
~~~~~~~~~~~
Liz waited for the phone to be answered. She barely allowed Maria to get out her greeting before launching into her explanation. "Maria, I know I'm really late but something came up here I had to take care of. I'll be leaving soon. Have I missed anything?"

"Nah. The band just got here. They haven't even begun to set up." Maria responded. "What's up though? Hope it's nothin' serious."

"No, we had a volunteer cancel on us and I'm waiting for her replacement." Liz explained as she lifted the shade to look out into the parking lot for Max's car. Not seeing it, she let out a nearly inaudible sigh and plopped back down in her chair.

"Oh, really?" Maria's eyebrow raised. Something in Liz's voice made Maria believe this 'replacement' was somehow special. "Who'd you get to fill in?"

Liz hesitated unwilling to let Maria know how anxious she was about seeing Max today.
"It's…um…well, I…I called Max."

"Really." Maria said as a dimpled smile lit her face. "Well, can't V give him his assignment today?" As sure as the sun was shining, Maria knew the answer before the thought was even completed.

"No, she can't." Liz replied in slight irritation. "She'd probably offer to help him or talk his ear off so much that he'd never find out what he's supposed to do."

"So tell me. Exactly what sabotage do you have planned for the Wolf today?"

"What makes you think I have anything planned?"

"Kendall…"

"Oh, alright." Liz conceded with a roll of her eyes. "I'm putting him in with the 'D' group today."

Maria's mouth dropped open slightly. "Isn't that the group that…"

"Uh-huh."

Maria let out a low whistle. "You really are tryin' to run him out of town, aren't you?"

"No, I'm not." Liz denied quickly. "I'm simply trying to see what he's made of. If he can't handle a little group like this then leaving town might be the best thing for…" Just then there was a quick knock on Liz's door before it opened to reveal before her the very man she was discussing.

Liz lost all power of speech as her eyes swept over him from head to foot. He was wearing a cranberry-colored pull-over light, knit sweater tucked into a pair of tight fitting jeans. The overall look accentuated every curve of his solid chest while minimizing the size of his waist. And the jeans. God, she never knew jeans could do a body such good. They should either be registered as lethal or plastered on a billboard for commercial purposes. Someone would make a killing with that body as advertisement.

The cranberry against his bronzed skin only intensified the length and darkness of Max's lush lashes while turning amber sunbursts into the color of velvet chocolate. The bright smile that flashed over his lips when he saw the way Liz's eyes took in every inch of him made him downright irresistible. Liz let out a slow, ragged breath. "…him."

Kendall's silence concerned Maria at first till she heard her sigh that last word. Maria almost bit her lip off trying to stop her laughter from making it to her voice. "Let me guess. He's there, isn't he? Like…right in front of you. Looking gorgeous, no doubt. So, what's he wearing…"

Liz cleared her throat while giving Max a quick wave into the office and ignoring Maria's questions. "Maria, I've got to go now. This will only take a few minutes then I'll be there as soon as I can. Bye. "

"Hope you don't mind. V said you were expecting me and I could come on in." Hearing Liz's conversation come to a close, Max stated the obvious as he casually leaned against the door. Watching him stand there, Liz wondered if she'd ever be able to master the art of breathing regularly around this god-like man. Somehow she doubted it.

"No, not at all." Placing the phone back on its cradle Liz gathered her things suddenly afraid to meet Max's eyes. "I am really glad you could make it, Max. You have no idea how much we needed you today. You are…beyond wonderful for doing this." Liz almost gushed her praises as if she'd been taking lessons from V.

An amused smile tugged at the corners of Max's mouth as he shrugged. "Not a problem…knowing you're wanted can make all the difference in the world…" She was absolutely adorable trying not to look at him, especially the way she flushed at his mention of being wanted.

"It certainly does." Liz responded quietly with unexpected meaning as her eyes suddenly raised to lock with his filling the room with an electrically charged energy. A slow smile spread over Liz's face in spite of herself as she gazed into Max's eyes. Amazing how he could make her feel all tingly inside with just one look. In that split second he saw the sadness in her eyes washed away with mutual desire. Max had to put more weight against the door to keep his knees from buckling at the sight.

As if remembering herself, Liz cleared her throat and looked away quickly. Why does he have to be so irresistible? I can barely handle how good the man looks but when he says things like that I become like some giddy schoolgirl! Liz's eyebrows furrowed as she silently chided herself and busily began closing down her office.

Max grinned to himself. He'd expected this actually. All of the mixed signals. He was sure their earlier conversation had time to sink in by now and she would be a bit more on the professional side than she had been on the phone. At the same time, Max couldn't deny he'd hoped to see the desire he felt whenever he was near her burning in her eyes as well, even for a moment. She certainly hadn't disappointed him.

Max watched as she nervously yanked her purse from its hiding place in her bottom drawer and gathered a few files, standing up from her desk and coming around to meet him. She glanced up at him briefly and flashed him a quick smile. "Well, I guess I should show you to the room."

Heading out the door and down the hallway Liz glanced back at Max as she fidgeted with her files and nervously tucked her hair behind her ears. "Now, I'll only be gone about an hour. The kids shouldn't be that much trouble." She slipped her purse strap over her shoulder as she muttered under her breath. "At least not more than usual…"

Max had begun to follow Liz down the hallway when he stopped abruptly at hearing the word 'kids'. His face paled and the smile that he'd been unable to erase suddenly disappeared. Liz stopped and turned noticing that he was no longer walking beside her. Concern flashed in her eyes when she saw the look of fear in his. Maybe this was a repeat of yesterday… "Max? Are you ok?"

Max blinked a couple of times trying to make sure he'd heard her right. "Did you…did you say 'kids'?"

A slight smile played on Liz's lips as she walked back to where he stood rooted to the floor. "Yes, is there a problem with that?" She asked as an amused, knowing look took possession of her eyes. For the first time since his arrival, Liz felt more in control of herself than Max apparently did.

Max swallowed hard. "It…it's just…" Clearing his throat and willing himself to get control fast Max came up with what he thought was a plausible question. "Isn't there some kind of training I have to have to watch kids here…or something?" He asked weakly.

Liz's smile lit her face. He was so completely adorable in his uncertainty. As much as his confidence the night before had affected her, his lack of it now touched her deep inside somehow. It was as if she was seeing a side him rarely showed…his vulnerable side. It almost made her regret what she was about to do.

"No, not at all. If you were counseling them you would have to be trained, of course. But you're simply going to be watching them while they play for a while." Liz explained as laughter began to dance in her eyes. With each word she spoke, Max uncertainty grew.

"But…but…uh…" Max was searching frantically for an excuse to get out of this. He could kick himself right now. Why hadn't he asked her what emergency he was rescuing her from? Max's voice wavered on the brink of panic. "Are you sure you don’t have something that needs to be copied…or…or cooked instead?"

"You're not…scared…are you?" Liz asked raising a slender eyebrow and trying to hold back the laughter in her voice but completely unable to hide the teasing look in her eyes.

Max's eyes locked with hers as his chin raised defiantly. "Scared? Are you kidding?" Noticing the challenge in Liz's eyes, Max squared his shoulders and planted his hands firmly on his hips as he began to inform her in no uncertain terms of his bravery. "I'll have you know that I've raced the rapids of the most dangerous rivers in the world. I've…I've come face to face with a shark before. In fact, in my younger, wilder days I've known danger like you've never dreamed. I am certainly not afraid of a few little children."

Max's defensive stance and nonchalant confidence caused Liz's heart rate to speed up dramatically. She unconsciously took a step forward, creating only a sliver of space between them. Looking up at Max coyly she lowered her voice to an almost whisper. "Wild and dangerous, huh? Something tells me I would have enjoyed watching you then." With a slight shrug of her shoulders and a tilt of her head she added with an additional twinkle in her eyes. "Who knows? I just might enjoy watching you face danger now…"

"Is that so?" Max's mouth went dry as he saw her usually brown eyes darken with desire. Slowly, Max felt himself leaning down his focus moving from her eyes to her waiting lips. "Well, what a coincidence. I was just thinking the same thing about you." His hand automatically came up in a now familiar gesture to tuck a strand of hair behind her ear. "So, what do you say? I'm willing to forego a little hero worship if you're willing to risk spending the afternoon with such a dangerous wolf as myself…"

Liz saw him moving closer and watched as his eyes darkened to midnight. As the air around them became stifling hot, Liz suddenly lost any and all resolve she should have had to not allow him to kiss her when she felt his heart racing unexpectedly under the touch of her hand when it automatically gravitated upward to meet his advancing chest. In that moment, kissing him was all she wanted to do.

Max's heart was racing and he knew it. He reveled in it. He wanted to keep it racing for as long as he could. It meant he was alive. And so was Liz. Somewhere deep inside of her, the girl she used to be was struggling to break free. Dying to feel again. A wave of sheer excitement washed over Max at the thought. He was making her want to live again…

Max was only a breath away from what he could imagine was pure heaven when the ringing of a cell phone broke the moment.

'That's…that's…uh, that's me." Liz said breathlessly and pulled back as a mixture of relief and disappointment suddenly washed over her when she realized just how close they'd been to fulfilling both of their desires. Struggling with her files she rummaged through her purse to pull out her cell phone. "Hello? Maria, what is it? Yes, I left them in the cabinet. No, behind the labels." She glanced up at Max with an apologetic smile. "Yeah, I'm heading out now. Sure. I'll see you in a few."

Liz clicked off her phone and turned back to Max the desire in her eyes moments before replaced once again with a professional distance. "Well, I guess I'd better show you to the room now. Follow me."

Max let out the breath he'd been holding and shook his head trying to decide how in the world he was going to stop the racing of his heart. Hearing the clicking of her heels getting further down the hallway, Max grinned slowly as he took close inventory of Liz's retreating form. The memory of what almost happened between them caused his eyes to sparkle as he followed her. He was completely unaware of the danger Liz was leading him into or the pair of dark eyes that watched his every move through the window.
~~~~~~~
Three hours later Max found himself glancing at his watch every 5 seconds wondering where in the world Liz was with growing anxiety and irritation. He cursed under his breath as he tried to step over a doll and ended up landing on a wooden block instead. He finally managed to make it from one end of the room to the other without causing bodily damage to any of the…hoodlums, he'd decided to name them…that were running around the room.

From the moment he stepped foot in the room and Liz stepped out, he knew this was going to be a disaster. Maybe it was the block that had been hurled at his head that clued him in. Or maybe it had been the way the silence of the room exploded into chaos the moment the door was closed. Either way he'd been counting the seconds till relief arrived. Unfortunately, Liz's sense of timing must not have been as sharp as his. She was late…an hour and a half late.

Max let out a sigh as he leaned against the wall and began rubbing his temples in an effort to relieve his headache. He couldn't remember the last time he had a headache this bad. He couldn't determine if it was from the 20 screaming children or the dozens of times he'd been hit in the head with flying objects or the stress of damaged property their little 'playtime' had produced. Probably a combination of the three.

He glanced down at his sweater and wriggled a little feeling the dampness from the mishap of an hour ago finally starting to dry. It had all happened so fast. He'd been trying to get Tommy and Sarah to share the dump truck when all of a sudden he heard a loud cracking noise and a scream from the opposite corner of the room.

Whipping his head around quickly Max turned just in time to see the sink break away from the wall due to the weight of three children sitting on the edges of the sink. There was no counter to support their weight and the sink decided it couldn't handle it all so it came crashing down out of the wall breaking the water pipes and sending children and water flying everywhere. He couldn't even remember how he got the water turned off but he did remember how it had taken all his control not to strangle each and every child within his radius.

Max's cell phone rang and he quickly pulled it out of his pocket, hitting the button and holding his finger to his one ear so he could hear. "Hello?"

"Max? Is that you? You sound like you're in a young war. What's going on?"

"Barbara. Thank God." Max practically yelled into the phone. "Another adult."

Barbara's eyebrows raised as she heard his words and gathered the awful noise in the background was his latest brilliant plan to get close to the beautiful Ms. Blake. "What does she have you doing now?" Barbara asked as amusement began to sparkle in her eyes. If this woman didn't end up killing him she'd be surprised.

"I think I’m supposed to be watching this group of tiny demons, but it feels more like they're at target practice and I’m their target…" Max's sentence trailed off when he saw a child jump up, grab hold of the curtains and start swinging on the them. "Hey! You! Redhead! Stop doing that! Get down this instant!"

Barbara bit back her laughter when she heard the frustration and irritation in his voice. Immediately after yelling at 'Redhead' she heard him addressing another source of irritation… "Hey, what do you think you're doing? Don't you dare throw that at….ouch!" Max yelped suddenly into the phone. "Hey! That's my foot you're stomping on! Tommy! Let Sarah have that raggedy thing. Ok, ok, ok, Sarah. Don't cry. No, no, don't cry. I…I didn't mean it. I know your dolly isn't raggedy…Oh, God, here come the waterworks. Barbara! Get me the hell out of here!!"

Barbara burst into full-blown laughter at Max's exclamation. Wiping her tears from her eyes she informed him in short gasps. "I…warned you…not to…let her…see you…with children."

"She isn't here to see me, for your information. If she were none of this would be happening!" Max replied back hotly. "Well, don't just sit there and laugh at me! DO SOMETHING!"

"What do you want me to do?" Barbara responded trying her best not to laugh. She knew what the anger level in his voice meant and tried to curb any and all merriment. Still, she couldn't help herself…. "You're 3 hours away. By the time the plane touches down in New Haven, you'll be mauled or ax-murdered from the sound of it."

Just then she heard him mutter "Thank God" under his breath and figured it had nothing to do with her last statement. "Barbara. I'll call you back. I've got to go." Max said tersely before she heard the dial tone sound in her ear. She replaced the phone on the cradle, leaned back in her chair and began to laugh till tears were pouring down her face. "Well, Max Evans…looks like you've finally met your match this time."
~~~~~~~
The instant Liz rushed into the room her mouth dropped open at the sight that met her eyes. She had no idea that putting Max with the 'D' group would create the havoc she saw before her. She couldn't have done this better if she'd planned it herself. Not that she'd wanted to completely destroy his faith in the innocence of children. She'd just wanted to test him a little. Open his eyes to the problems they faced here day in and day out.

The 'D' group was the worst group of kids at the Center. 'D' stood for many things among the staff…difficult, discipline problem children, or even destructive. Although the staff lied at times and told the kids it meant they were 'delightful…just delightful'. Every volunteer that had managed the 'D' group had left frazzled and worn. Few ever returned to that room. It was like punishment to them. That's why Liz liked to work volunteers up to the 'D' level. She never started them out there like she had Max.

Going into this, she had expected Max to have difficulty with the group but she'd also had every intention of getting back to the Center in plenty of time to rescue him. Things hadn't gone well at the recording session and the band had to take extra time laying down their tracks so she had been stuck there with no way to help him out. She'd called V to see how things were going but another volunteer answered the phone and reminded Liz that V had gone to the store to get supplies. She'd probably be gone for an hour or so.

They were short staffed as it was and she had no way of relieving him or sending someone in to help. Still, Liz tried. She called V on her cell and asked her to get ahold of a few people just for a short times. V said she would. It wasn't till later Liz found out V had had a slight accident on the way back to the Center and had forgotten in all the excitement.

Now, she knew that had been a mistake. Her eyes roamed the room taking in the damage before turning to Max and locking eyes with him. From the looks of it, she was going to have a lot of explaining to do.

Max reached her from his end of the room in 3 strides. "Just where the hell have you been?!" Max yelled at her as his eyes burned cold with anger.

Taken back by his angry question Liz's defenses flared instantly. She put her hands on her hips and stared back at him equal fire shooting out of her eyes. "I've been at my meeting." Her arms swept wide around the room as she made an accusation she hadn't planned on making. "What have you done? What happened to the sink? And why are the curtains about to fall off the wall? I can't believe I leave you alone for…"

"THREE HOURS!" Max filled in for her. "Three hours in detention with these hoodlums and…and delinquents! I'll only be gone an hour or so, you said. That's the longest damn hour I've ever seen!" Max took a step toward her and pointed his finger in her face. "No planned sabotage, you said. You didn't need to plan a sabotage…" His arms swept in a wide gesture toward the children. "….they WERE your sabotage!"

"Max, I swear to you I had every intention…"

"Of what? Killing me off today? That'd be just perfect for you, wouldn't it?" Max stepped closer, his voice deadly low as he locked intense furious eyes with her. "Then you wouldn't have to deal with how I make you feel every time our eyes meet. It's a helluva lot easier to push someone away than to open your heart and feel, isn't it, Kendall?"

Eyes blazing with unrestrained fire, Max's rampage built in intensity. "Well, keep it up, babe, and you're going to end up on that side of 'very much alone' with a chasm so deep between you and every last fool that dares to get to know the real you." Max barely registered the way Liz's eyes widened and her breath caught as he continued. "See, you don't fool me either. I know there's someone deep inside of you that's just aching to live again. And until you let her out so she can finally breathe, you are going to be miserable and unfulfilled and…and rotting away in that prison you've created for yourself. Maybe you’re the one that should sit in 'time out' and think about THAT for a while!"

Liz's mouth dropped open to answer when the sound of a child crying split the silence in the room. Neither she nor Max had realized that the moment they started yelling at each other all activity in the room had come to a screeching halt. Liz's eyes scanned the room to see which child was crying. Spotting Sarah in the corner Liz turned back to Max and spat out with as much venom as she could muster given the tears building in her chest. "Great. Look what you've done now."

Max felt Liz angrily brush past him and stalk away to attend to the frightened child as instant remorse gripped him. He passed his hand over his eyes and let out a sigh. He shouldn't have exploded like that. He should have controlled his anger better…especially in front of these children. He took a step forward to see if he could help, but stopped when he saw Liz pick the child up and cradle her in her arms effectively calming her fears.

What was the use? Barbara had been right. He shouldn't have anything to do with children. Now that he'd proven that to Liz in such an obvious way, he doubted she'd ever want to have anything to do with him again either. Shaking his head, Max turned and silently left the room not seeing the tears that formed in Liz's eyes as she watched him go.
~~~~~~~
McKenna paced back and forth in front of her bed. Shutting her eyes she hoped to erase the memory of the look in Max's eyes as he'd gazed at Liz. Although she doubted he was in love…yet…it certainly didn't look like it would take long before he was. That was unless she didn't something about it.

But what? There had to be a way to combine her two assignments. All of the elements were there she just had to think of a way…

McKenna snapped her fingers as a grin spread over her face. That was it. Now, all she needed was a little more information on the child…
~~~~~~~
"Good evening, Max." Angel smiled pleasantly as Max entered through the front gate wearily.

Max mumbled a good evening and trudged up the path to his cottage. He entered his room, threw his coat and briefcase on the chair and sank onto the sofa with a groan.

"Liz…whatever your last name is, what are you doing to me?" Max said out loud to no one in particular as he looked up at the ceiling. His mind flew over the afternoon's events. He felt as if he'd been swept into a whirlwind and had just now been spit out onto the ground after a long hard windy ride. He also felt very guilty for the way he'd reacted. Overwhelmingly guilty, in fact.

There was a knock on the door and Max, not having the strength to stand, yelled out his invitation. "Come in."

The door opened as Angel stepped in with a concerned look on her face. "I'm sorry for intruding but you seemed a bit...are you ok?"

Max sighed. "I'll be fine, Angel. Really. It's just been a long day."

Angel came fully into the room unwilling to let his assurances stand. Besides, she had a strong feeling his mood had more to do with a certain person in his life than the length of his day. "Would you like to talk about it? Sometimes it's easier to handle if you have someone to talk to."

Max looked down as if something on the floor was so interesting that he couldn't tear his gaze away.

"You know, people have told me I'm a good listener. In fact, I used to listen to my son's troubles all the time. I miss doing that. He's been gone now for about 6 years. He was a little younger than you when I lost him."

Max looked up suddenly, unaware of her family situation and sensing the loneliness in her voice. "I'm sorry. I didn't know."

She smiled suddenly. "I didn't tell you to make you sorry. I told you to let you know that I'm here for you if you want to talk about anything…and I'm not so old I wouldn't understand." She turned to walk away when Max stopped her with his words.

"She's driving me nuts. Not just run of the mill nuts, we're talking One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest insane here. Full fledged certifiable." He said with simple desperation in his voice.

Angel smiled secretly to herself before turning around. "Ah, I had a feeling it was women trouble."

Max shook his head as his eyes snapped with fire. "Oh, no. Not 'women' trouble. 'Woman'. As in one. Kendall." He let out a frustrated sigh. "I'm telling you, I've never had this much trouble getting through to a woman before." He glanced up at her and grinned cockily. "I'm accustomed to a certain level of…success with the ladies, believe it or not."

Angel's amused smile added a sparkle to her dark eyes. Oh, I can believe it.

His smile faded as quickly as it came and a perplexed look took possession of his eyes. "But this one...."

Angel sat down in the chair opposite him. "So, tell me what she's done now."

Max got up and started pacing the room. He ran his fingers through his hair in frustration as he shook his head. "She's the most exasperating women I've ever met. I can't figure her out at all. One minute she's all smiles and flirtation and the next...well, the next she's like an armored tank ready to either shoot you down or run you over."

He turned to look at Angel to emphasize his point. "Like today. Get this. She calls me up this morning begging for my help with an emergency. When I get there she's all dimples and smiles..." Max shook his head at his own ignorance, "...which should have been my first clue that something was up. But no. I just fell for it hook, line and sinker and walked right into her little trap…again"

Angel cleared her throat in an effort to hide her grin. Boy, Liz had really gotten to him today. "Her little trap?"

"Yeah. Do you know what she did to me today? Do you have any idea what little 'job' she had planned?" Max's voice was getting louder with each question as his irritation was threatening to spill over.

Angel shook her head no as Max continued without even stopping to wait for her response. "She stuck me in the detention room." He stated as he put his hands on his hips. The look he gave her almost sent her into a fit of laughter. It was as if just those two words should be explanation enough of the hell he'd had to endure.

"The detention room?" She managed to ask her voice shaky with barely controlled merriment.

"Yeah." Max continued. He was on a roll now and it looked like it was going to be hard to stop him. "At least that's what I assume it was. Can you believe that? She put me in a room full of 20 of the worst behaved children…" He paused a moment shaking his head. "No. No, children is not the right term for them. Demons. Hellions. Spawns of Satan. Pick your term of choice. They certainly all apply."

Resuming his frantic pacing, Max picked up his train of thought as if he'd never lost it. "The worst demons that have ever been born, I tell you. By myself, no less. And just...left me there. As if I know anything about children or what to do with them. I'm a corporate raider, for God's sake, not a babysitter."

He continued to pace as he began speaking more to himself than to anyone else in the room. "Then again, I bet she knew that. That's why she did it. She wanted me to fail so miserably....and I did. I fell for it. I mean, there are few things that I set my mind to that I can't accomplish. But today....today was a complete disaster. And she knew it would be. That's why she staged this little emergency and was so happy to see me this afternoon. Why can't she just give me a break for once?" Max finally stopped his rampage and flopped back down onto the couch.

Angel leaned back in the chair and quietly observed him as he sat on the sofa, his head in his hands, frustration written in so clearly in his body language. Boy, did he have it bad. She suddenly wondered if Liz had it as bad as he did. From the sound of it she did. Maybe it was time to give the boy a hand.

"I suspect the reason she isn't giving you a break is because you're just as confusing to her as she is to you. And that scares her."

Max looked up sharply. "That's impossible. She's the most fearless person I've ever seen." He spat out in disbelief. "Besides, there is no possible way anyone could be as confusing as that woman is. Especially not me. I mean, I've really made no secret of what I'm doing here."

"Really? And why are you here? In New Haven, I mean."

"I have a business venture to keep tabs on." Max answered quickly. A little too quickly for Angel's taste.

"And this business venture requires volunteering at a children's center?"

A quick blush spread over Max's cheeks. "Well…no. But I feel responsible for the situation…." He looked up at Angel realizing how flimsy his excuse really sounded. "It's a long story."

"I have the time…"

"I'm sure you'd be bored."

"A story with you as a principle character…hardly."

Max grinned his gratitude for her willingness to listen but temporarily ignored the offer. Letting out a sigh, he leaned his head back and closed his eyes wearily as his mind seized Angel's earlier statement and began to whirl. "Do you…do you really think I'm confusing her?"

"Oh, I can guarantee it." Angel stated with confidence. "Probably just as much as she's confusing you."

Max opened his eyes to look at Angel. "What makes you think I’m confused?"

Angel just shrugged. "Just a hunch." Tilting her head to the side she leveled him with a penetrating gaze. "You going to try and tell me you're not?" She pointed behind her at a few bags packed and sitting by the door. "Because from the looks of that, you're on your way out of town. Not to mention the call I got from your assistant to settle the bill. Yet you took the time to babysit a bunch of hellions just because Kendall called and asked you to."
"That doesn't sound like a man entirely sure of his next move." She pursed her lips as silence filled the room as Max absently stared down at his hands. "Be honest, Max. If not with me, at least with yourself. This business you're here on…is it really the only reason you've hung around New Haven so long?"

"Of course that's the primary reason…" Max stated promptly, his voice hardening slightly.

"Uh-huh. And?" Angel prompted.

Max looked away sheepishly. "And..."

"Yes?"

"And there's just something about her I can't walk away from, ok?" He jumped up from his comfortable seat and ran his fingers though his already tousled hair and headed toward the fireplace before whirling to face Angel in agitation. "There. I admitted it. Are you happy now?" Max asked in irritation.

"My happiness isn't in question here. Yours is." She eyed him carefully. "Does she?"

"Does she what?" Max mumbled, not sure he liked the direction this conversation was taking.

"Does she make you happy?"

"Are you nuts?" Max exclaimed in disbelief. "Haven't you been listening to a word I said? She put me in detention hell today...on purpose. Do I sound like a happy camper?"

"So if you aren't happy, why do you stick around? I'm sure you're business could be conducted far away from her…if that's what you wanted, of course."

"Because…" Max started in frustration, running his hand through his hair again. But his frustration lasted only a moment. The more he thought, the more relaxed he became. His voice took on a softness that surprised even Angel. "….because there are moments when she's surrounded by the kids or when she's talking to someone…but mostly when I look in her eyes that I see it."

"You see what?"

"The sadness in her eyes disappear. The carefree, loving spirit she was born to be. And when I do, I just…I just can't look away." Max turned to look at her, his anger and frustration having been completely depleted. His lopsided grin sent a motherly pang through her heart. "Sounds silly, huh?"

Angel shook her head and smiled. What a lucky girl Liz is. "No, I don't think that's silly at all. In fact, I think it's one of the most beautiful things I've ever heard."

Max looked down embarrassed. "Yeah, well, it doesn't do me any good." He commented as he sat back down. "She's got a wall wrapped around her so thick and so tight no one could get through. Not to mention her…whatever…" Max made a hand gesture of dismissal. "…with Sean."

"Good idea. Let's not mention him." Angel suggested with a wave of her hand bringing a slight grin to Max's face. "You know, Max, maybe the reason you aren't getting through is because you're knocking on the wrong door." Angel said cryptically.

Max looked up, confusion written all over his face. "What do you mean?"

"Remember I said she's probably scared? I know you say she's fearless, but let's suppose for one moment she isn't. What do you think she'd be afraid of?"

Max thought a moment. "Well, I know she's afraid that I'm here to take the Center from the kids. In fact, that's how we met in the first place. See, there's a business deal going down and for a while the land the center is on was being looked at as a possible purchase. That was until I found out what exactly existed on that property. I would never take a home away from kids or a service that is so obviously needed."

"Does she know that?"

Max nodded. "She does now. I even gave her a contract to that effect last night, but I get the feeling she's still having the hardest time believing me."

Angel pursed her lips as she thought a moment. Puzzle pieces began to fall into place. Yes, she could see Liz being suspicious even after he'd tried to tell her his plans. The whole 'methinks the lady doth protest too much' scenerio would definitely come into play for her. Only in this case it would be the man protesting too much. And with Liz's track record with most men…

"Maybe she doesn't believe you because she senses an ulterior motive. Do you have one?" She eyed him carefully as he responded.

"How am I supposed to know? I barely know why I'm still hanging around this Mayberry-sized town." Max quipped back at her.

Angel smiled. "Oh, I think you know. You're just too afraid to admit it. Because as soon as you do, you've put yourself into a whole different ballgame. In fact, I think you're already on the field with your bat raised just waiting for the right pitch. And now, you're wondering if your swing is going to produce a foul ball or a home run."

"What are you talking about?" Max's voice was quiet and strained. He knew what she was getting at, but he didn't want to be the first one to voice it. She was right. He was afraid.

Recognizing his hesitancy, Angel decided to end the suspense. "I'm talking about the game of feelings. Real feelings. The kind that you can't easily walk away from. The kind you try to protect yourself from with that playboy image you try to perpetuate. Am I right?"

Max nodded and blinked quickly unsure of how she's figured all of that out so quickly. What was happening to him? Too many people were getting too close too fast lately. Maybe he was losing his touch. Maybe he was becoming too easy to read. First Liz now Angel. Somehow he didn't really mind it as much as he thought he would. At least not with Angel. She was so much like his mother in so many ways. It was comforting to actually have someone to talk to about Kendall and the confused feelings she stirred in him.

"Whether you know it or not, you have your walls too."

"No, I don't." Max responded stubbornly.

"Oh, come on, Max. Let's get real. You're supposed to be this billionaire playboy. A ruthless business tycoon. Yet, here you are staying at a quaint, somewhat romantic B&B. You enjoy taking strolls in the garden to look at the stars at night and you're volunteering your time at a children's center. Not to mention, I haven't seen one female visitor come to your door yet or call you for that matter--outside of your secretary of course. Now either there are some serious misconceptions going on about you, or you enjoy the mask those ideas allow you to wear. So that no one can get close enough to hurt the real you."

Silence filled the room as Max thought about what she'd said. She was right. He did enjoy the public images people cast on him. They did keep him safe in a way. Safe from anyone knowing the real man behind the mask.

Sensing that she was getting through to him, Angel plunged forward. "The only difference between you and her is that your walls aren't as thick as hers. While she hides from the world, you play in it. You revel in flitting here and there never landing long enough to actually feel something real. And because of that you're willing to take a little more of a risk than she is. At least on the surface. Maybe the thing she needs is to feel that she won't have to give everything up just to let herself go a little."

"If what you say is true..." Max said after a pause, glancing up at her unwilling to admit anything openly yet. "...and I'm not saying that it is, but if it is true--how...how do you think I could help her do that? Learn to let go, I mean."

Angel smiled with a twinkle in her eyes. "I think it's time to change tactics in this war of yours. Do something that no other man has ever done. Be different from any other man she's ever known."

Still not understanding exactly where she was going with this, Max let out a sigh. "Maybe I'm not any different because I still don't know what you mean."

"Think about her." Angel finally answered as if those three words would be the answer to all of his problems.

Max rolled his eyes. "I do think about her. So much that I wish I could trade Kendall thought time into frequent flyer miles or better yet…fuel for my jet. Now that would save me tons of money."

Angel chuckled. "No, dear. Don't think about what she does to you when you look at her. Or how she makes you feel. Think about her. Concentrate on what she's thinking and feeling…."

Max sat up straight excitement growing in his deepening chocolate eyes. "Or what I can do for her. Find out what she never asks for herself…and give it to her. What she's always dreamed of, but never thought could come true. Am I right?"

Angel nodded with pride. "You've got it. She spends so much time helping others that she rarely spends time concentrating on herself and her own dreams. I'm not even sure she dares to dream anymore. Who knows? Maybe you can help her find out if she does. But remember, no matter what you do, no matter how you approach it, there's always got to be one constant…one ingredient that can never change. Any guess as to what it is?"

"She can't know." Max answered immediately. "If she knew anything came from me, she'd never accept it."

"Well, that's certainly true." Angel commented before thinking. Seeing the questioning look in Max's eyes she covered quickly. "At least…from what I've seen so far…the hourglass...and…" Going on a hunch, Angel leaned forward, her eyes trained on his face. "You're the one that gave her the stock in Parker Industries, aren't you?"

Max's head snapped up. "What? She…she told you about that?"

Angel nodded. "Yep. Pretty upset about it actually."

"Upset?" Max's brow furrowed in confusion and concern. "But that wasn't my intention at all…"

Holding up a restraining hand, Angel smiled at the panic that raced through his expression. "Relax. I didn't mean upset that way. It's more like she's very curious. See, it didn't make sense to her that some woman she didn't even know made her ownership conditional in the sale of a multi-billion dollar corporation." Angel paused as she watched Max swallow hard. "I understand why you lied to her about Ms. Parker being the one to insist on her participation. I think we both know Kendall probably wouldn't have taken the stocks if she knew that you'd given them to her."

Max let out a loud sigh and leaned back against the couch again. "No, she wouldn't have. And I…I really needed her to take them."

"So, I gathered. And to be honest, I think even Kendall knows somewhere deep down inside of her that you're the reason she's part owner in that company now." Angel agreed. "But the real question now is…why? There's where her fear of your ulterior motives comes into play. So, what are they? Because I know you have them." Watching Max's gaze waver, Angel got a sudden knot in the pit of her stomach. "Come on, Max. Talk to me."

Taking a deep breath, Max leaned forward and locked eyes with Angel. "Alright. I needed Kendall to take the stocks because I am going to take over the Center." He hastily continued when he heard Angel's light audible gasp. "Just…hear my out. It's not what you think."

With a nod of Angel's head, Max continued. "I…I just found out that my brother is being pressured to steal the property the Center sits on."

"Pressured." Angel repeated. "That's usually a nice way to say 'blackmailed'."

Max's eyes met hers. "Exactly."

"Oh." Angel's absent response came out in a near whisper as her gaze drifted while she tried to process the information. It didn't take long before her eyes snapped back up to meet his. "And the person…"

Max shook his head. "I'd rather not say who is doing this."

"Ok. So, let me guess…it's something about you, right? Something from your past maybe?"

Max swallowed hard and nodded silently.

"I see. And this is something you don't want Kendall to know…"

"I don't want anyone to know. Hell, I don't even want to know it." A shaky breath was released and Max closed his eyes as memories threatened to assault him. "It was…the biggest failure of my life. The darkest period..." Max's voice grew distant and detached. "Pure hell. I barely lived through it the first time. There's no way I can survive a second time. Not even the memory of it."

"Alright, that's understandable. We all have our ghosts that haunt us." Angel commented gently before switching to more solid ground than the fathomless pit of despair she saw gathering in Max's eyes. "But how does Parker Industries fit?"

Snapping out of the darkness he'd felt himself falling into, Max forced himself to concentrate on his explanation as diversion. "Well, it fits because I don't want to do this. I don’t want the Center. I don't want to hurt Kendall or those children. But I have no choice. So, I've given Kendall all the ammunition she'll need to fight me."

Angel shook her head at the man before her. He was amazing…and he didn't even know it. "How so?"

"Well, the contract I handed her last night left me and my company wide open for a liability suit when I do take over the Center. Which means that Kendall, as part owner of Parker Industries, can sue for and take control of all of it as well as a sizeable amount that I'll be more than willing to part with when she does decide to cash in for my obvious betrayal."

"But how exactly does this help her if the Center is gone?"

Max grinned his first smile in a while and his eyes danced with delight. "I've already purchased a new piece of property for the Center. It's the old military school off of Citadel Parkway."

"You're kidding!" Angel's exclamation filled the room and her smile layered it with brightness. "Oh my God. Max, that's…that's…"

"Going to take a lot of work." Max interrupted, quickly staving off Angel's obvious praise. "A LOT of work." He emphasized. "Which, in turn, is going to take a lot of money. For renovations or for a whole new complex. Either way, it's going to be a huge project. One that Kendall is more than capable of handling, I’m sure. Especially if she has all the funds at her disposal that my breech of contract and the profits from Parker Industries will give her."

Angel sat in stunned silence as she stared at Max with awe. Until a thought struck her. "Max. You know this whole deal…you're going to be…"

"The bad guy." Max swallowed hard and nodded. "I know." His casual shrug contracted the shadow of pain edging his eyes. "Hey. Whatever works to keep the Center afloat and Kendall's passion alive."

Unexpectedly, impulsively Angel moved from her seat to slip onto the couch next to him, giving him a warm motherly hug. Max chuckled self-consciously as Angel released him. "What…what was that for?"

"That was a poor substitute for the hug Kendall would give you if she knew exactly what you were sacrificing to make this happen for her." Angel's smile was proud as she reached over and gently patted Max's hand. "You know what? I was a fool to think I could give you advice on her. You're the only one that's got just what it takes to reach her. Just…don't give up."
A sad smile touched Max's lips as he glanced away. "I'm…not so sure I'll have much choice in the matter once things unfold…"

"No, Max. You have more than a chance. You know, I finally understand now why you try so hard to hide that heart of yours."

"Why?" Max's one word question was a bare whisper.

"Because it's much too big and way too tender for the ruthless world you live in every day." Angel tilted her head to the side till Max was looking into her eyes. "You know, there is a way to let it shine with all its beauty and minimize the possibility of it getting destroyed."

"How?"

"Create your own world of straight forward honesty and trust, Max. No games. No ulterior motives. Then just take a giant leap of faith. Invite a precious few into your inner circle and when they knock on the door to your heart asking for answers to questions they can't understand, throw the doors wide open without any fear. Once you do…once you trust and open up…they'll never want to leave your world, Max." Angel gave him a motherly nudge. "And then…you'll never be alone again…"

Max covered her hand with his and gave her a smile as his eyes moist eyes met hers. "Thanks."

"No. Thank you."

"For what?"

"For inviting me to your world." Angel's warm smile was greeted with an equally warm smile and a silent nod from Max.

Patting his hand, Angel rose and headed toward the door only to be stopped by Max's voice. "Angel. I…I was really angry when I left Kendall today. I said some things…" He took a deep breath and shook his head. "I think I really goofed up…"

"So, you hit a foul ball." Angel stated calmly with a shrug of her shoulders. "You can fix it next pitch.

"How?"

"You'll find a way." Angel commented confidently. Pausing at the door she turned. "Just listen to your heart and…watch the pitcher's eyes, Max. They'll give you clear indication how to hit a sure home run."

"Thanks, Angel." Max responded as the wheels in his mind began to turn with all that Angel had said. The phone rang suddenly jolting him out of his thoughts. He grabbed up the phone and heard a familiar voice on the other line. "Alex?"

"Hey, man. Ran into a little problem. I won't be in till a bit later this evening. Is that going to mess up any of your plans? I know you were thinking of heading out…"

Grinning slightly to himself, Max's eyes began to dance with mischief. "Nah, that was just fear talking. Take your time, Alex. I'm not going anywhere for a while. Not for a very, very long while. I'm going to find a way to hit a home run even if it kills me…"
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
An hour later:

"Liz, how could you?" Angel asked as she stood in front of Liz's desk at the Center while Liz was busily rummaging through the file cabinet.

Liz looked up from her files defensively as guilt and irritation flashed in her eyes. "The man thinks he can do anything. He brags about it all the time. How was I supposed to know he'd be such a complete failure with children?"

Angel tilted her head to the side and gave her an 'I-can't-believe-you' look. "How do you know that he is?" She asked as she plopped down in the chair opposite Liz's desk and leaned forward. "You stuck him in the 'D' group, Liz. That's the worst group to deal with…even I have a hard time keeping them under control. Heck, even you do."

"I know that." Liz shot back as she came to her desk and angrily dropped a pile of papers down. "Look, I feel bad about it, alright? I tried to get back in time, but things at MLK ran over and I couldn't get anyone to help him and…" Liz ran her hand through her hair and donned a determined expression. "Well, I can at least take one thing away from this whole episode."

"What's that?"

"Max will walk away when the going gets tough." Liz answered decidedly as she sat back down.

Angel was stunned by Liz's statement. "You've got to be kidding me. That's what you took away from this? That he'll walk away?” Angel took a deep breath trying to calm her anger before she spoke. "Liz. That man stayed beyond his limit…beyond anyone's limit…with a group of children he should have never been put with in the first place. I don’t blame him one bit for walking out that door the second he got a chance. And you wouldn't either if you weren't so hell-bent on making him into a bad guy."

"Maybe I don't have to make him into a bad guy. Maybe he just is…"

"You know better than that." Angel interrupted her hotly. "You've done nothing but give him grief since the moment he stepped foot in this town and not only has he taken it all in stride, he's helped you. And this place. And these children. And now when your goal of running him off finally works you're sitting there more than willing to accuse him of leaving without just cause. Honestly, Liz, there are times I have no idea what you're thinking…"

"Yeah, well maybe I don't either!" Liz practically yelled before putting her head in her hands and letting out a loud sigh. Silence filled the room as she began to shake her head before looking back up at Angel. "I…can't think when I'm around him. He…he makes me feel…things I can't afford to feel. It's like I forget every promise I've made to myself not to let anyone get to me that way again. If I start feeling now…Angel, I just can't. There's too much at stake. The best thing for everyone is for Max to leave. As soon as possible."

"But…" Angel prompted seeing much more going on in Liz's heart than she was willing to openly admit without some much needed prompting.

Liz swallowed before continuing in a quiet hesitant voice . "But…if that's what's best…why did it hurt so much to watch him go?" Liz let out a sigh as she got up from her chair and moved to the window.

Angel's voice softened as she tried to get through that stubborn wall of Liz's. "I suspect it hurt because he makes you feel something...and you don't want to let that go. No matter what your head is telling you." Letting out a sigh Angel continued. "He's a good man and I think deep down inside you know it. You have good instincts about people, Liz. Why don't you trust yourself more?"

Liz smiled wryly. "Good instincts? Is that what you call getting involved with Chris? Marrying him. Letting him destroy my life. Killing my…" Liz's eyes filmed over with tears as she turned to face Angel allowing the unfinished sentence to hang between them.

"No, Liz. Even you said your instincts told you Chris was bad news. You simply made a wrong decision..."

"A decision that has cost us more than any of us should have had to pay. A decision we're still paying for." Liz interrupted quietly as she turned back to view the outside world. Crossing her arms in front of her she smiled slightly as she watched Jaedan playing on the playground with some of the other kids. "I promised myself I would never let my emotions rule me again. If they do...Jaedan will be the one to suffer. I won't let any of this touch her, Angel. Still…I just…I just don't know what to do…"

Understanding the struggle Liz was going through Angel smiled her first smile since entering Liz's office. "I'd say you need to start by apologizing to him. It's the least he deserves."

Liz nodded in silent agreement then asked in a quiet, small voice. "Then what?"

"Take a good look in his eyes." Angel instructed. "Then listen to your heart for once. It'll tell you where to go from there."

"Something tells me it's not going to be that simple." Liz stated uncertainly as she turned back to face Angel.

Angel got up from her seat and headed toward the door. She paused a moment before exiting. "I never said it would be."

Once outside Liz's office Angel shook her head with a slight frown. "Now to find a way to prove he isn't a complete failure…to both of them." Letting out a sigh she muttered, "If I don't these two are going to end up driving me crazy…"
~~~~~~~~~~
Angel looked curiously at the letter envelope laying in her chair when she returned to her office at the B&B. The mail had already run hours ago and she didn't remember seeing this in the pile. That could mean only one thing…

A sudden knot twisted in the pit of her stomach as she reached for the envelope and tore the top open. Pulling out the index card inside she took a deep breath as her eyes scanned the message. "Great. Just what we need. Another crisis to deal with." Glancing at her watch she realized if she was going to make the appointment she would need to move quickly.

Her thoughts turned to Jaedan. What was she going to do with her? She certainly couldn't take her. And Liz was working tonight. Maybe she could get Mrs. Carter down the street to watch her again. Jaedan enjoyed playing with her doll collection. Suddenly, Angel's eyes began to sparkle with the beginning of an idea. A smile spread across her face as she nodded confidently. "Yes, that would be perfect."

Jaedan came rushing through the door after having put her toys away. "Kay, Grandnanny! I got all my stuff put away! Can I help make the cake now?"

Angel forced a smile on her face as she patted Jaedan's head. "Sweetie, something's come up and we won't be able to do the cake tonight. I need you to run upstairs and get your backpack. I have to go meet a friend and you can't go with me so I'm going to drop you off at another friend's place."

Jaedan jumped up and down clapping her hands. "Oh, goodie! Does this mean I get to see Kendall?"

Angel opened her mouth to answer in the negative then closed it again realizing she'd never reach the appointment on time if Jaedan even got a whiff that she wasn't seeing Liz again tonight. "We'll see, sweetie. Run and do as I asked. We need to go in the next few minutes."

A bright smile lit Jaedan's face as she clapped her hands again. She turned and ran off in the direction of the stairs happily singing, "I get to see Kendall! I get to see Kendall!"

Angel let out a sigh and closed her eyes as she shook her head. "I really hope this works. If not, I'm going to have World War III on my hands…"

tbc…

[ edited 1 time(s), last at 21-Oct-2001 6:19:43 PM ]
posted on 21-Oct-2001 9:08:14 PM
~ chpt 20 ~


Max's head jerked up from the pillow at the imperative knock at his door. He yawned himself awake and pulled his body into a sitting position on the couch where he'd fallen asleep after Alex's call somewhere between an email from Barbara about the EMG docks plans and the stock figures for one of his latest purchases.

Another knock drew an annoyed response. "Alright. Alright. I'm coming. Just hold on a sec." The third knock sounded just as Max made it to the door and opened it as instant irritation flashed in his eyes.

That same irritation died as quickly as it had been born when he saw his visitor's worried expression. "Angel? Are you ok?"

Angel rang her hands nervously in front of her an apologetic look on her face. "Max, I'm so sorry to bother you especially after the day you've had, but I really didn't know where to turn. I need your help."

Max opened the door further and stepped aside to allow her entrance. "Sure, Angel, whatever you need…"

Angel shook her head at his invitation. "I can't come in. Something has come up that I need to take care of right away and it's put me in a bit of a bind. So, I really appreciate you doing this…" Angel turned to look behind her and motioned for someone to join her. The person she was silently calling apparently didn't want to come as indicated by how Angel put her hands on her hips in irritation.

Angel marched a few spaces away behind a nearby bush to withdraw from its greenery a little dark-haired, dark-eyed imp. "NO! NO! I don't wanna stay! I wanna go with you!!"

Max's eyes widened in surprise. Before him was his very own Garden Princess. Only right now "Princess" was not the role she was playing. In fact, if typecasting were in order, Max would suggest she play the role of one of the Little Rascals.

Her arms were tightly crossed in front of her little body and her feet were dangling in mid-air about a foot and a half off the ground as Angel had picked her up and carried her toward the door having a firm grip under her elbows. The stubborn pout on her face, the indignation shooting out of her eyes along with her general overall appearance as her pigtails bounced around her ears caused Max to struggle from bursting out into laughter.

The only thing that stopped him was the frustration that flashed in Angel's eyes as she set the little waif in front of her. "Jaedan Elizabeth, you'd better straighten up now or you'll not be going with me anywhere from now on!" Angel glanced up at Max with an apologetic grin just before Jaedan responded with her apparently usual flair.

Jaedan turned around and stomped her foot. "You can't leave me 'lone here all by myse'f!"

"I'm not leaving you alone by yourself. I'm leaving you with this nice man, Max." Angel said with determination as she leaned down and locked eyes with the little girl.

"But I don't wanna stay! I wanna see Kendall!" Jaedan said again as tears began to well up in her eyes and her dark curls bounced around her shoulders.

"Jaedan, Grandnanny isn't going to see Kendall. I have some things I need to do right now, and you just can't go with me."

Jaedan's arms unfolded and her little hands came up to clasp in front of her face in an attitude of begging. "Can Kendall watch me? PLEASE?? Pretty please??? I haven't seen her in a whole 2 days." She held two tiny impish fingers to emphasize her point.

"You just saw her an hour ago." Angel countered as she tried to hold back a chuckle.

"But I miss her already. Please, Grandnanny??? I wanna be with Kendall." She pleaded again. Max smirked to himself. He knew that feeling all too well. Wanting to see Liz again only hours after having left her. At least he and this little Princess had one thing in common.

Angel let out a motherly sigh as she began to shake her head. "If you aren't the spitting image…"

Max jumped into the conversation feeling that his two cents, though not requested, were required…at least for his own sake. As much as he'd enjoyed meeting and visiting briefly with his Garden Princess before, the little girl that stood before him now was an entirely different creature. One that reminded him a little too much of the hell he'd been through earlier today. One that he wasn't quite sure how to handle. "You know, Angel, maybe she's right. Maybe she'd be better off with Kendall tonight."

Angel shook her head. "No, Max, Kendall's working. Besides, Jaedan's half-spoiled as it is. She needs to learn she can't always have her way."

"But…Angel..." The sound in Max's voice was pure panic and desperation. "I…I'm no good with …I can't…" He ran his fingers through his hair in frustration.

That a mere child could strike fear into him like this was not an easy fact to acknowledge. But after the day he had, he was willing to be humbled a little if it meant he didn't send another child into a fit of tears. Especially this child…his Garden Princess. "Look, you didn't see me today. I wasn't joking when I said I was a complete failure. I…I don't want to fail…with her."

Not only understanding his reservation but expecting it as well, Angel patted his arm in a motherly gesture. "You won't, dear. You'll be fine. Just be yourself. I think if you give her a chance you'll find she's a lot like you...only smaller."

Angel bent down so she was eye level with her little charge. "Sweetie, I know Kendall misses you too and I'm sure she'd love to have you stay with her, but she's working tonight. You know you can't visit when she's working. You two always end up having too much fun and she never gets anything done. Now, we've discussed this. I have to meet someone, Kendall's at work and can't take care of you and you…" Angel glanced up at Max then back at Jaedan. "…will get to stay with Max. He'll take good care of you."

She took Jaedan by the shoulders and turned her around marching her into the cottage with determination. "Now, young lady, I expect you to be good for Max." Turning to Max she offered up a small book bag and a relieved smile. "Thank so much for this. Do you like Black Forest cake?"

Max nodded mutely as his eyes shifted with growing anxiety from the abandoned little urchin standing just inside his doorway with her back stubbornly turned against the rest of the world to the abondoner eagerly taking her leave.

"Good. Then I'll make one for you tomorrow. I shouldn't be long tonight. Have fun!" And with that final word she was gone pulling the door closed behind her.

As soon as she heard the door close, Jaedan spun around and ran to it pounding her little fists against it then sinking to the floor in a puddle of tears as she cried her little heart out. "Grandnanny! Don't leave!!! I…want…Kendall…"

Max took in the scene before him with increasing trepidation as he ran his fingers through his hair and he shook his head. He then threw up his hands and asked a question of the heavens beyond his ceiling. "Why me?"
~~~~~~~
Angel pulled into the dark shadows and cut the lights before the motor faded into silence. She glanced around as an extra precaution to see if she'd been followed. Not seeing anyone in the vicinity, she eased out of the car and quietly locked the door behind her. Becoming best friends with the shadows, Angel slipped silently to the lone building just on the edge of the forest.

Approaching the door Angel knocked the given code--two short knocks, pause, one long knock, pause, one short knock. A voice was heard from inside. "Who is it?"

"Joan of Arc." Angel whispered the name before the door opened to reveal a single point of light in the inky darkness. She slipped in quickly just before the door slammed shut behind her, the room suddenly coming to life with light.

Angel blinked to get her eyes accustomed to the light and was greeted with a soft pat on the back and an invitation to come further in the room. "I'm so glad you could make it, Angel." The female voice spoke with sincerity.

Angel shrugged as she headed for the table and sat down in front of the cup of coffee that had been poured for her. "You sounded like it was a matter of life or death. So, which is it?"

Angel's companion slid into the seat opposite her and grabbed the sugar. "Neither. Yet."

Angel smiled wryly as she eyed her confidant. "Then which is it going to be?"

She looked up sharply from the whirl of her diluted coffee and replied. "That depends on you, I guess."

Angel leaned back and pursed her lips. "Alright, Sheila, spill it. Is this about my past activities or future possibilities?"

"Both." Sheila Cobb responded as she leaned forward. "I've been approached for information…on Liz."

Angel sat up suddenly and leaned forward as well. "What? Who? When?"

Sheila held her hands up to stop the influx of questions. "Hold on, hold on. I'll tell you everything. Just give me a chance, ok?"

Angel's anxiousness was clearly written all over her face. Since meeting Liz six years ago, she'd been on constant watch for Liz's safety. Any inquiry no matter how small could spell imminent danger if not properly eradicated. She impatiently tapped the top of her cup with her fingernail.

Sensing Angel's growing anxiety, Sheila launched into her tale. "A couple of days ago a man approached me. I don't think you know him. His name is Alex Whitman. He was asking me all kinds of questions about Kendall…or Liz, rather. I really don’t think he knows much at this point because he didn't even know Liz's last name. Seems to be a lot of guesswork right now."

"Did he give you any indication who he's working for? I'm assuming he wasn't asking for himself…"

Sheila nodded. "No, he wasn’t. And yes, he did. Frankly, I was rather surprised. The man he was inquiring for was a man I've known for a while now. His name is Maxwell Evans…"

"Max?" Angel asked incredulously as her eyes widened in surprise. "Max came to the FBI for information on my Liz?"

"You know him?" Sheila asked eagerly.

"Know him?" Angel shook her head with wonder at the increasing twists and turns this meeting was already taking. "He's watching Jaedan right now…"
~~~~~~~~~
Watching Jaedan was all Max was doing at that moment. He was too afraid not to keep his eyes trained on her little figure. Afraid she'd bolt from her perch in the corner of the window seat to the door and disappear into the night.

After Jaedan's initial outburst of tears had subsided she'd crawled up into the window seat and gazed out the window into the night. Silent and still and ready to spring into action like a soldier in a foxhole waiting for the next target to appear.

He'd tried several times to engage her in conversation but to no avail. Apparently, she not only had the fairy tale dreams of a real princess, but she also had the usual stubbornness associated with them as well.

His mind raced for things to do and say to pull her out of her self-induced wall of silence. What was it Barbara had said? Something about not being afraid of them…of being yourself. Now what would reach him if the situation was reversed? A sudden grin spread over his face. That's it. That's what he'd do.

"Hey Princess, I'll be right back ok?" Not receiving any verbal or visual response, Max got up from the couch and headed toward his bedroom. Grabbing a financial book he had lying on the nightstand, Max took the jacket cover off and tossed it on the bed before heading back into the living room.

Max noticed that Jaedan had absently pushed Boo-Boo Bear to the floor in her attempt to scramble up on the window seat. He cocked his eyebrow as his gaze moved from the bear to Jaedan, whose eyes were still resolutely turned away from him. Max took a deep breath and hoped with everything he had that this worked. Retrieving Boo-Boo Bear from his upside down position on the floor, Max took him to the couch and plopped down sitting Boo-Boo Bear in his lap and opening the book.

"Now, Boo-Boo Bear. It's time for your bedtime story. How about a fairy tale tonight? I've got a great one here." Max turned the page and read out loud. "It's called the Swiss Family Robinson…"

After turning 10 pages and making up what he couldn't remember of the story Max started to despair that this little stunt of his wasn't going to work in gaining Jaedan's attention. He glanced over the top of the book to see if she was even in this hemisphere. Not noticing any drastic change, Max decided to give up and try something new.

"And so the Swiss Family Robinson…" Max began his conclusion, reading to Boo-Boo Bear as if reading to a stuffed animal was just another part of his daily routine.

"That's not a real fairy tale." Jaedan's small voice interrupted Max's story unexpectedly.

Max glanced over at Boo-Boo Bear trying to hide the smile of victory that threatened to light his face. "Did you say something, Boo-Boo Bear?"

"Boo-Boo Bear didn't say anyt'ing. I did." Jaedan announced as she moved her legs from under her body and swung them over the seat to dangle in front of her.

Deciding to tease her a little, Max picked the stuffed bear up and held it in front of him. "What was that? I know I heard you say something. Come on, Boo-Boo Bear, you can tell me what you wanted to say…"

Jaedan jumped off the window seat and ran over to the couch hopping on it and grabbing Max's arm to make her presence known. She bounced on her knees in excitement. "No, Mr. Prince Charming. Boo-Boo Bear can't talk! It was me! It was me!"

Max tuned a surprised face to her. "Why, Garden Princess! I didn't know you were here."

"That's cuz I'm not Garden Princess tonight." She said with a little sigh as she looked down with a frown. "I'm just Jaedan."

"Just Jaedan." Max repeated as he saw the way her eyes took on a sadness that sent a knife through his heart instantly. "You make it sound like there's something wrong with being 'Just Jaedan'."

Jaedan let her bottom slide to the couch with a plop as she pulled her legs from under her and stretched them out in front of her. Sitting side by side with Max now Jaedan nodded her dark head slowly as she bit her lower lip and she looked down at her hands. "Jaedan's always bad."

"Oh, I see." Max said as a smile threatened to break over his lips. "Well, what does Jaedan do that makes her bad?"

"She leaves her 'kates out. And…and she paints all over herse'f. And…and…and she cries when she shouldn't."

"Well, now. I don’t know about the painting yourself, but if you're talking about earlier, I don't blame you a bit for crying. In fact, I kinda felt like crying myself." Max admitted with a wry grin.

"You did?" Jaedan asked as her pigtails bounced around her shoulders when she turned wide eyes on Max.

"Yep, I did." Max confirmed with a nod of his head. "See, I've never babysat before…and well, it kinda scared me."

"How come?" Jaedan tilted her head sideways and looking up at him from under a thick veil of long, dark lashes. For a split second Max imagined someone else doing the exact same thing. But who? He wondered.

Unable to grasp the image that floated on the edge of his mind, Max shook his head and shrugged as he concentrated on the vase of flowers on the table instead. "I don't know. I guess I was afraid you wouldn't like me."

With a gasp, Jaedan jumped onto her knees and turned to face him her eagerness to reassure him just one more endearing quality that Max couldn't deny. "Oh, no, Mr. Prince Charming! I like you so very much! I do! I really do! It's just..."

"Just what?"

"I miss Kendall." Jaedan responded with a slight frown tugging the corners of her rosebud lips downward.

"You must love her a lot to miss her so much after seeing her such a short while ago." Max commented quietly refusing to allow his thoughts to stray to the fact he'd felt the same way on many occasions since meeting Liz.

Jaedan nodded her head and let out a little sigh. "I love her all the way to heaven and back again...then all the way around the world--two times!" Again, her fingers came up to produce visual representation of her vocal announcement.

Max flashed her a grin. "Wow! That's a lot of love."

Jaedan's smile lit her eyes as she nodded her head. "Uh-huh. And she loves me that much too! She tells me so all the time."

"I'll bet she does." Max said as he thought of how easy it would be to love such a adorably delightful child. Not to mention how effortless it would be for Liz to show her love to Jaedan. Like the children at the Center, Jaedan couldn't hurt her.

Tilting her head to the side, Jaedan suddenly grew serious. "Do you have anyone that loves you that much?"

Max blinked a few times at her innocent yet probing question as he thought of the people in his life. Did he have anyone who loved him like that? Of course he did. His mom, dad…Kyle. But did anyone else? Alex, in his own way. But no, beyond that he really couldn't say anyone came to mind right off the top of his head.

He had plenty of 'friends' or people who called themselves friends, an abundance of acquaintances, and a world full of business contacts, not to mention those who would smile to his face then stab him in the back. But he only had a few select numbers of people who knew and loved him inside out. In fact, now that he thought about it, no one else came to mind at all…

"Mr. Prince Charming?" Jaedan prompted as she placed her small warm hand on his.

Max smiled down at her before slipping his arm around her. "I have a mom and a dad and a brother that love me just as much as Kendall loves you, Princess."

"Don't ya have no one else?"

"Not that I can think of." Max answered quietly. "But you know what? It doesn't really matter how many people love you…just that each one that loves you does it with all their hearts. Like you love Kendall…and she loves you."

Jaedan's eyebrows furrowed in concentration. Glancing back up at him Jaedan tilted her head to the side and turned her dark eyes full of hope on him. "Mr. Prince Charming? Would it hurt if I loved you too?"

A radiant smile broke out on Max's face at Jaedan's simple question. "No, Princess. I don't think it would hurt at all. In fact, I can't think of anything I'd rather have you do." Max answered with more emotion and complete sincerity than he'd expected.

His reward was the most beautiful smile he'd ever seen on a child's face before. It made his heart skip a beat with the way his answer had lit up her eyes and gave him a sense of completeness unlike anything he'd ever known. Pulling her close he gave her an impulsive hug that ended with Jaedan reaching up and placing the sweetest little kiss on his cheek then slipping her arms around his neck to give him a fierce hug. A hug that he didn't mind receiving in the least.

Pulling Jaedan up on his lap Max cleared his throat of the unexpected emotions that had begun to wash over him and blinked back the unshed tears that had sprung to his eyes at her impulsive display of love. He had no idea how much that simple action could touch him. Definitely more than he'd ever dreamed.

Deciding he needed to get control of himself, Max pulled Jaedan back to the beginning of their conversation. "So what was it you said about this book I was reading to Boo-Boo Bear?"

"It's not a real fairy tale." She repeated as she pulled Boo-Boo Bear to her chest and hugged him tightly while snuggling deeper into Max's arms.

Max's eyebrows raised in surprise. "It's not? But…how do you know? I mean, why don't you tell me what a real fairy tale is…"

Jaedan's face lit up so fast it made Max his head spin as sat up quickly and turned to him. "Really? Ya really wanna know?"

Max began to chuckle as he reached out and batted her pigtail playfully making it bounce even more than it had been. "Sure I want to know, silly. I wouldn't have asked if I didn't."

Jaedan began bouncing on his lap excitedly as she clapped her hands together. "Kay!" She settled down immediately and turned to face him her face holding the expression of a teacher getting ready to lecture her students on her most favorite subject. "A fairy tale always has a bootiful Princess, a ha'dsome Prince, an Evil Wizard with magic spells or maybe even a d'agon that has to be slewn..."

"Slewn?" Max asked with a confused look not sure what she was trying to say.

"Uh-huh. You know...when the Prince takes his sword and..."

"Oh, slain." Max exclaimed when he finally realized what Jaedan's mispronounced word was.

Jaedan shook her head stubbornly causing her dark hair to make a 'swishing' noise as it moved across her back. "No. I mean slewn."

Max nodded his head with a smirk and a wink. She was definitely not a little lady to be contradicted. "Gotcha."

"Anyway...where was I?" Jaedan asked as she put her forefinger to her cheek and thought a moment. "Oh, I know! The d'agon." Jaedan paused as she patted Max's hand reassuringly and shook her head. Her eyes grew wide as she anticipated Max's fear of such creatures. "Don't worry about him or the Evil Wizard. The Prince and the Princess always win in the end. Ya know why?"

"No, why?" Max asked in an awed whisper. In that moment Max thought this little slip of a girl could make him believe in anything just with the sheer strength of her child-like faith...even fairy tales.

"Cuz the Prince and the Princess have a love that's so strong it carries them all the way through to the happily ever after."

"The happily ever after, huh?" Max repeated mulling the words over in his mind. Why did he get the feeling... "Jaedan, sweetie, who taught you that?"

"Kendall." Jaedan said as she picked Boo-Boo Bear up and straightened his bow tie before hugging him to her.

Max nodded his head as a slow smile took possession of his lips. "Just what I thought..."

"That's only when she's not sad and she's talkin' to me in my sleep though." Jaedan added dreamily. "When she's sad she always says that fairy tales aren't real and that Grandnanny and I are better than any Prince she has ever dreamed up..."

"So, she does dream of Princes..." Max whispered to himself as the eyes of his soul looked through the foggy veil into the future.

"Huh?"

Smoothing Jaedan's hair away from her eyes Max leaned forward and planted a quick kiss on the top of her head as he wrapped his arm around her. "Nothing, Princess. Do you have a story you'd like me to read to you now?"

"Yeah!! Booty and the Beast!" Jaedan said excitedly as she jumped off Max's lap and ran to her book bag pulling out her book and climbing back on Max's lap so fast he had barely realized she was gone. Handing the book to Max she started to explain it before he got a chance to open the cover. "See, it's about this bootiful girl named Belle and a Prince that acts like a beast until she loves him..."
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Angel jumped up from her seat. "I've got to go."

"Wait. Hold it, Angel." Sheila stopped Angel's exit with her words. "If you're worried that Jaedan's in danger with Max, don't. I know him. I'd trust him with my own life. He'd rather die first than let anyone...especially a child...in his protection come to harm." Sheila waved toward the seat. "Come on, have a seat. Jaedan's perfectly safe with Max."

Angel hesitated then turned back toward and slide back into her seat. Her gut instincts told her Sheila was right. In fact, she'd just been telling Liz earlier that she thought he was a good man...encouraging to trust her heart where he was concerned. The least she could do was follow her own advice. "Alright. So tell me what this Alex was asking...specifically."

Sheila leaned back and poured herself another cup of coffee. "Well, he wanted to know if she'd ever been in the witness protection program."

"What?" Angel breathed out quietly. "How the hell did Max figure that out so quickly?"

Sheila smiled wryly. "Max is a sharp customer."

"Yeah, so I've noticed." Angel agreed with a nod of her head.

"In fact, I'd say he's one of the sharpest I've met. He was a real asset to the agency before he...left."

Angel's eyebrow raised in surprise. "Max was an FBI agent?"

Sheila's face split into a wide grin. "Heavens no! His talents would have been wasted at the Bureau. No, he was much larger than the Bureau."

"CIA?"

Sheila shook her head as amusement danced in her eyes. "Larger."

"Oh my God. You've got to be kidding me." Angel let out a low whistle as she leaned back in her chair and began to shake her head. "And here Liz's worried about the danger from Chris if they get involved. As if Max can't handle a midget slimeball like him..."

"Hold it, Angel. I'd say Liz's got the right idea in being cautious. That's why I called you." Sheila interrupted quickly. Eyeing Angel's expression and having picked up on the meaning of her last comment Sheila's eyes narrowed. "So, tell me...are they involved?"

Angel pursed her lips. "Not...yet. But from what I can see they're crazy about each other so I really don't think it would take much for them to be involved. Once a few misconceptions are out of the way, that it…"

Angel picked up on Sheila's hesitancy and instantly had her curiosity piqued. Sheila obviously thought the world of Max so why did she get the feeling that she was about to be warned away from him? "Why do you ask? You obviously don't think he'll hurt her…"

"Oh, no, don't get me wrong." Sheila interrupted quickly before taking a sip of her coffee. "The woman Max gives his heart to one day will be treasured like a rare jewel. And that's the problem."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean whoever that lucky woman is she could end up as a target."

"A target." Angel repeated suddenly not liking the sound of any of this. "Whose?"

Sheila shrugged her shoulders. "Max's enemies. You name them, he's got them. His record at the Bureau was highly successful. He's made plenty of people angry and I wouldn't put it past any of them to have him watched for just the right moment to take out their revenge."

"And what greater revenge than to target the woman he's in love with, right?"

"That's the standard scenario." Sheila confirmed with a frown.

Angel started shaking her head. "No. It's not going to happen. I'm not going to let that happen to Liz."

"I'm sorry, Angel." Sheila said as a sympathetic smile played on her lips. "I'm sure they would have been great together. I hope Liz hadn't started to care too much…"

"No, you don't understand. It's not going to happen because I'm going to make sure they're protected. To do that I need your help." Leaning forward and locking eyes with Sheila, Angel quietly made a demand. "Tell me everything you know about Maxwell Evans."
~~~~~~~~~
Liz had been sitting in the driveway of the B&B for over half and hour. She'd actually managed to get her hand on the door handle a few times, but never found the strength to actually open the door.

Her conversation with Angel earlier kept playing over and over in her mind. She had been too hard on Max. She knew she had, yet she didn't know how else to stop these feelings she was beginning to realize from growing by leaps and bounds.

Liz let out a sigh as she leaned her head back. If only her past hadn't been so complicated and full of pain. Maybe she'd find a way to let him into her life somehow. On second thought, maybe all she really needed to do was let him be.

If he insisted on staying in New Haven maybe she shouldn't fight it. She didn't want to fight it. Maybe she should just let him do his thing and she could go on doing her thing… Yeah, right. Like that was even possible with Max. The two of them couldn't be in the same room without having some kind of interaction.

Well, one thing was certain. Nothing was going to be resolved either way unless she took this first step. Taking a deep breath, Liz finally pulled the handle and opened the door.

Walking up the path to Max's cottage Liz smiled to herself as she looked up at the moon and remembered the night before. Max had looked so incredible standing on the terrace with the moonlight streaming down on him…as if the moon was paying homage to him somehow by showering it's bright silver light on Max's perfect form.

Liz's footsteps slowed as she neared Max's cottage. The closer she got the more her stomach tied in knots. She began to run her prepared speech through her mind for what seemed like the billionth time when she caught a glimpse of something through the window that stopped her dead in her tracks. Her heart constricted with sudden overwhelming emotion then opened to feel a sense of intense completeness wash over her.

Tears sprang to her eyes instantly as she inched her way to the window and crouched down a little to view the scene inside. There, sitting in the overstuffed chair by the fire was Max…with Jaedan on his lap curled up against him hugging her stuffed bear to her chest with one arm.

He held an open book of Beauty and the Beast in his hands as his arms were wrapped protectively around her daughter. Eyes closed peacefully, strong chin resting on the top of Jaedan's dark head, he was making no sound. Neither of them were. Long dark lashes rested lightly against soft cheeks and one tiny hand was tucked near Jaedan's face covering the strong, gently beating heart of her Prince Charming.

Trusting. Open. Safe and secure...they were both completely sound asleep.
~~~~~~~~~
Across town in a run down hotel the sounds of the outside traffic made it's way up to the 3rd floor tenant that was pacing in front of the bed waiting. The phone barely began to ring when McKenna flew to it and grabbed it up.

"Hello?" She listened carefully to the voice on the other line. "Yes, it's me, you imbecile. Put your boss on the phone." She shook her head impatiently.

She had to admit she loved her job. The intrigue, the danger. Even the different roles she was called on to play. Not to mention the money. The only downside was working with moronic lackeys such as the one who was patching her through to his boss right now…that is if he knew how.

A click of the phone then a rough voice sounded in her ear. "You rang?"

"Actually, you rang." She retorted sarcastically. "What's this all about anyway?"

A sigh at the other end and she could instantly picture him leaning back in his chair, propping his feet up on the desk as a smug smile came to his face. "What's wrong, baby? Don't you appreciate me checking up on my abused 'wife'?"

"Depends on which wife you're talking about." Was McKenna's sharp answer. She really didn't like having her work scrutinized and questioned at every turn.

His deep wicked laugh resonated through the phone sending chills through her spine. She'd truly hate being on the wrong end of his vindictiveness. "Since you've never had the pleasure of sharing my bed I guess that leaves only one now doesn't it?"

She grimaced at the mere suggestion and commented sarcastically. "If that's the only criteria, I'll gladly pass the bouquet to your former beloved."

His sinister laugh rang through again. "Your loss. Speaking of my 'beloved', how is she these days?" He asked pronouncing the endearing term with more hatred than she believed she'd ever heard in her life.

Something in her almost felt sorry for his unfortunate victim. Almost. But the color and sound of cold hard cash ringing in her ears quickly drove that sentiment into the ground. Not to mention the image of Max staring into her eyes earlier…

"As beautiful as her pictures. And as dumb as you told me she'd be. I have her eating out of the palm of my hand."

"Good. Very good. So you have the information I want?" Came the greedy question.

"Not so fast." She said as shook her head at his impatience. "I said she was eating out of my hand. That doesn't mean she's fat enough for the kill. No pun intended."

She heard his hand slam down on the desk and could picture him rising out of his leather seat to yell into the phone. "What does it mean then?"

"It means she's buying my story. Not that I'm buying hers." She answered calmly untouched by the roughness of his anger. "Your wife has quite a few secrets she's hiding, Mr. Santoro. Quite a few. And she doesn't let just anybody close enough to reveal them all. I need more time to determine the point of largest impact when we make our move."

"And when you do?"

"We'll all get what we want."

"I like the sound of that." Chris Santoro answered with a satisfied smile as he sat back down in his chair. "Just don't take forever to accomplish the goal. My revenge won't wait forever."

"Your revenge will wait for as long as I say. I'm better at this than you. Remember that's why you're paying me the big bucks." She stated plainly and without doubts as to who was in control. "Look, just relax. It'll happen when it's ready to happen and not before. When it does, I promise you, it'll be well worth the wait."

"That's one promise I'll definitely hold you to." Chris responded with deadly seriousness lacing his every word.

"Then I guess that's all that needs to be said." She responded with a seriousness that threatened to overthrow his as her eyes began to shine with greed.

"Right." Chris answered back. "Good night, Gracie. I'll be watching you…"
~~~~
Angel felt as if she were on information overload. After her talk with Sheila she'd decided to take the long way home just so she could sort through everything Sheila had unloaded on her before facing Max again. As it turned out, that wasn't as easy as she thought it would be.

The main reason for her confusion was that Sheila's story had holes in it. Too many holes for Angel's tastes. Having been an agent herself at one time she was always suspicious of a person's story where 'No one ever talked about it, but…' comments were made. And there had been several where Max was concerned.

She got the strangest feeling that he'd been into things much deeper than anyone had ever imagined. More dangerous than people supposed. Maybe it caused him to lose things he'd never intended...things, or rather people, that were important to him. That would explain the difference between his roguish, cavalier personae and the caring, kind person she'd recognized in him from the beginning. He was desperately trying to not lose again.

Her thoughts quickly turned to Liz and how she would react to all of this once she knew. That brought up many dilemmas for Angel. Such as…should Liz even know? If so, when should she be told? Who should tell her? And what would it do to their chances for romance once she did know? Somehow, Angel knew the answer to that one…

Since meeting Liz six years ago she'd never once lied to her. About anything. That's what had gotten through to Liz in the first place. In a world of lies and secrets, Angel's complete honesty and straight-forward manner broke Liz's wall of silence and helped her re-gain control of her life by destroying Chris'. Not that Chris had been the only one who lost…

It had been a family affair. Angel, her husband and her son were all agents for the FBI. The assignment consisted of Angel and her son, Dan, going into Chris' organization undercover while her husband, Jay, was surveillance and reporting. The Latin blood running so thick in Dan and her veins made it much easier to be accepted into Chris's world than the Germanic blood running in Jay's.

The assignment...to discover Chris's weak link and use it to bring down his organization. Discovering it was the easy part. Angel had been 'hired' as a new cook in the Santoro household. It didn't take long for her to see the handwriting on Chris's wall would be done by his very own wife, Elizabeth Parker Santoro...Liz.

Although Angel had gotten a few glimpses of the young beautiful mistress of the house--for it could never really have been called a home--it had taken a few weeks before their first real contact was made. The evening had been busy as Chris had put on a dinner party for his associates and all staff was needed to cook and serve. The only sight she saw of Liz was when she'd wander out into the grand hall where guests were milling about speaking in whispers and feeding their faces to check the table for what dish needed to be replenished.

Liz was standing alone by the food table sipping her champagne and gazing with cold, empty eyes at the scene being played out before her. Her husband, hair slicked back walking around as if he were king of the world…his world...patting the backs of his most trusted and sizing up those with whom disagreements occasionally insued. Their wives huddled in groups that Liz never really felt part of discussing the latest in dress designers and the most fashionable restaurants to visit...anything but the reason they were all gathered. Business.

None of that mattered to Liz. Chris never let her go anywhere. Dresses were designed for her at her home so she never had to go outdoors to shop. She was never allowed near any of Chris's meetings and she had no friends to speak of.

The designer had outdone himself with his latest creation draped over Liz's perfect form. From head to toe she was dressed as elegantly as a queen and jewels sparkled continuously as they captured the light of the chandelier high above. Angel thought she'd never seen anyone more beautiful. Or more alone in a room full of people.

The only bright light that had shown on her face was the result of the clumsiness of one of the new servers. The white-coated server had accidentally dropped a tray when a guest backed into him right in front of Liz sending the contents of the tray to the floor at her feet. Liz immediately stooped and began to help him gather the horse d' roves as a silence fell upon the room. Unconscious of the stares of the guests and Chris' glare of anger Liz calmed the young man's nervousness and bestowed on him a smile fit for a king when she told him that all people make mistakes and to run along and fetch another tray.

He'd returned to the kitchen and a room full of scolding. "Mistake indeed! She'll be the one to pay for it!" Was a sentiment Angel heard the rest of the evening. It wasn't until much later that night she truly saw what they meant.

Hours after the last guest had gone home, Angel had just turned the lights out in the kitchen after cleaning up and was heading up the stairs to her room when she heard a door quietly open and heard the slow shuffling of someone's feet along the terracotta floor.

Thinking it was one of the servants Angel turned back to the kitchen and flipped on the lights. The sudden action surprised her silent guest and she spun around to meet her face to face. "Oh, my God." Angel breathed as she got a good look at Liz. "What did he do to you?"

Liz put her hand to fend off Angel's instinctive ministrations and turned away, her hair falling down in front of her face. "Please. Just go. And don’t tell anyone. Please. It'll only make it harder for me…" Liz pleaded with her in a soft broken voice.

Despite her initial resistance, Angel reached out and took the crying girl in her arms and held her till her tears were spent. After getting ice to put on Liz's blackened eye and swollen face she tested to make sure her ribs were not broken. After a quick examination Angel sat down across from Liz and eyed her carefully. "Why do you stay?"

"He'll kill me if I don't." Liz responded as her voice took on a hard edge.

"He'll end up killing you if you do." Angel said quietly.

Liz took the ice pack from her face and looked at Angel as tears once more welled up in her eyes. "You should go now. The longer you stay with me…you have no idea what you're getting yourself into by talking to me."

Angel leaned forward and patted Liz's hand. "Maybe not. But I certainly know what I'm getting you out of."

That conversation led to others like it over the next few weeks. Conversations that revealed to Liz who Angel really was and gave her hope that the nightmare she had married into actually could come to an end. It wasn't until Liz came to Angel one night in tears that the decision to move and move quickly was finally made. Liz had promised herself never to bring another child into Chris' world. Now it was time to keep that promise. Liz had found out she was pregnant with Jaedan…

None of them knew how much it would cost to extract Liz from Chris' grip of fear, but looking back on it now it had all been worth it. Liz was safe…relatively speaking. Chris was locked away in some rotting prison. Angel was no longer in active service. And Jaedan was as happy as a little girl could be. She was only missing one thing…a mom and dad to call her own. Well, Angel knew the 'mom' part was taken care of and believed there would come a day Liz would be able to declare it to the world. Now it was time to check on Max and see how Angel's idea of the potential 'dad' part was going…
~~~~~~~
Liz couldn't remember having ever seen anything so perfect as the tender scene framed by the window of the cottage. Not even in her dreams. Not even in the visions that haunted her and had once given her the inspiration to paint.

A tear slipped unexpectedly down her cheek and Liz couldn't help but feel the overwhelming desire to be a part of the living, breathing work of art in front of her. She ached for it. Tried to breathe it into her system. Make it a part of her forever. She placed her hand on the glass pane and closed her eyes willing the warmth of the home she saw waiting for her just beyond the door to reach out to her through the wall separating her from the peace and companionship Max and Jaedan shared.

Hearing the sound of footsteps coming up the path and not wanting to be caught spying, Liz glanced up and quickly ducked behind the bushes between the path and the cottage. Peeking through the leaves she saw Angel come to the door and knock lightly. Hearing no response Angel knocked again. Still hearing no response Angel opened the door slowly and poked her head inside.

Hearing the door creak open Max began to stir then opened his eyes to see Angel gazing at the two of them with a smile on her face. "Hey." Max whispered as he glanced down at Jaedan and saw she was still asleep.

"Hey yourself." Angel whispered back. "Looks like I was right."

"About what?"

"The two of you. I knew once you gave each other a chance you'd get along just fine."

"It was better than fine. She's an angel." Max responded in a hushed awe. Part of him still couldn't believe the events of the evening. How well Jaedan and he had gotten along together. How easily it had been to open up and admit things he'd rather die before admitting to an adult. Like his fear…his loneliness. She had a way with him that he couldn't quite understand. A way he instinctively felt he could easily get used to.

Angel sat down on the couch facing Max. "You wouldn't have thought so with the tantrum I heard her throw when I left." Pausing a moment Angel glanced at the book Max still held in his hands and smiled. "Beauty and the Beast. It's her favorite. She loves how Belle sees the beauty of the Prince inside the Beast enough to love him and break the wicked spell."

Max smiled as he looked down at Jaedan tenderly. "Yeah, so she told me."

"You know, it's a fairy tale, but there's a real principle there to be learned." Angel shrugged her shoulders as she tilted her head in thoughtful contemplation. "For instance, look at you. You started out with a little beast tonight and ended up with an angel. It can often be that way in life…"

"Are you trying to tell me something, Angel?" Max asked as he shifted in his seat to accommodate Jaedan as she began to stir.

Taking a deep breath Angel decided to come out and say what she was hinting at. She wasn't sure Liz really would follow through with an apology to Max and thought he at least should know he deserved one and that Liz knew it. "I saw Kendall earlier. She…really didn't intend for things to go as far as they did today. She feels…well, she feels really awful about it."

Even though Max looked away at her words as he absently smoothed Jaedan's hair, his silence gave her indication he was open to listening as she continued. "She's a very beautiful woman, Kendall is. I'm…sure you've noticed." Seeing the slight smile that formed on Max's lips Angel added with a roll of her eyes. "Ok, so that was an understatement."

Max chuckled slightly in agreement and looked back at her as she continued.

"Unfortunately, she hasn’t really given you the chance to see how beautiful she is on the inside too. In fact, I think her heart is the most beautiful part of her." Angel locked eyes with Max as she quietly made her next plea. "Look for it, Max. Once you find it, I think all of those rough edges will disappear. It might take a little work, but in the end she'll probably surprise you with just how magnificent she really is despite her 'beastly' roar."

Angel's suggestion was greeted with a nod of understanding and a sudden softness in Max's chocolate eyes. Max opened his mouth to say something but before he got a chance to respond, Jaedan stretched and groggily opened her eyes bringing her hand up to rub them. "Mr. Prince Charming?" Jaedan whispered as she gazed up at Max.

"Yeah, sweetie." Max answered as he brushed away a strand of hair from her eyes.

"Can ya tuck me in?"

Max glanced up at Angel and received an agreeable nod then smiled back down at Jaedan. "Sure can, Princess. We'll let Grandnanny get your bag, ok?"

Jaedan nodded as her eyes shifted to Angel. She smiled sleepily. "Hi, Grandnanny. This is…"

"Your Mr. Prince Charming you've talked about so much this past week. I know, sweetie." Angel smiled at Max's surprised expression. "In fact you're just about all she's talked about. You and Kendall, that is."

Max blushed slightly as an unexpected grin spread over his face. "Really? Me and Kendall, huh?"

"Yeah. Those two names keep making it into quite a few sentences around here lately. Who knows...might be some kind of sign." Angel teased with a wink.

Max's grin made his eyes dance with hopeful anticipation. "Yeah, who knows? Maybe it is…"
~~~~~~~~
After Angel had entered the cottage and closed the door, Liz slipped out from behind the bushes and headed through the garden in the direction of the gazebo. She needed to get a little distance from what she'd just witnessed. Perhaps the further she was away, the less effect it would have on her. The less it would make her want Max and the feelings he stirred in her.

Try as she might she just couldn't get the picture out of her mind. The safety. The protection. The peace. The trust so evident in the way Jaedan slept soundly in Max's arms. When was the last time Liz had been able to do that? Trust someone so completely that she could fall asleep by their side and know she wouldn't be harmed. Or become vulnerable to someone else and put her complete faith in them.

Not since before Chris. Once surrounded by crowds, her circle of trusted friends consisted of two now. Angel and Michael.

Michael, because he was family at the time of Liz's whirlwind courtship and marriage to Chris. He'd been on Emily's side telling Liz that Chris was bad news. He'd tried to warn her, but it was a warning that obviously went unheeded. Now, years later, he'd opened his arms and allowed her the safety of his town. The protection of his brotherly watchful eye. His friendship and love.

Although, Michael understood her need for secrecy, he didn't know details of how hellish living with Chris had been. He didn't know of the intense fear she lived with every day. Every hour. Every second. She loved Michael like a brother, but even she knew there was some types of pain and suffering, broken dreams…well, they were too much to give to anyone.

Everyone except Angel. She knew everything. She'd suffered loss on a count of Chris just as Liz had and it formed a bond between them that would never be broken. They had needed each other. Liz to help her with her pregnancy and 'disappearance' from the world and Angel had needed a comforting shoulder to cry on when the pain of losing her husband and son to Chris' bullets on one fateful night became too much to bear.

It had been so long since she'd given herself completely to anyone. Especially a man. That's why this thing with Max was so difficult for her. Until him, she hadn't even wanted to trust. Now, that's all she wanted to do…and it scared her more than she could say. And made her fight against it all the more.

Standing there moments before watching her daughter have no fear in his presence…it gave Liz a sense of hope. Hope that maybe just maybe she wouldn't have to spend the rest of her life alone. Without trust and safety. If her daughter could believe in him, couldn't she?

The ringing of her cell phone brought her mind back to the immediate present. "Hello?"

"Hi, there." Sean's voice sounded softly in her ear. "How would you like to pack your bags and meet me at the airport in say…45 minutes?"

"Sean, what's going on? What are you talking about?"

"I'm talking about you and me finally getting away and taking that trip you keep promising me." Sean explained.

Liz closed her eyes and swallowed when she felt her mouth go dry. "A…a trip? To where?"

"Grandfather is sending me on a business trip to Hawaii. Can you believe people actually work in Paradise? Anyway, I figured you could tag along. You'd have the day to shop or do whatever while I’m in meetings, and when I'm not we could get a chance to spend some real quality time together. You know, walks along the beaches, watch the sunsets together…" Sean paused sensing Liz's silent reluctance coming through loud and clear on the other end of the line. Deciding to lay things on the line, Sean took a deep breath. "I think it's time, Kendall. I think it's time we finally go away together and take 'us' to the next level."

"The next level." Liz repeated quietly not sure how to answer Sean. The last thing she wanted to do right now…the last thing she could do…was take a trip while there was so much here to be taken care of…especially with Max in town.

"Yeah, you know. The next level." Sean's voice lowered suggestively. "Something tells me you feel it's time too."

"Really? Why?" Liz asked in a strangely strained voice.

"Because of that kiss last night." Sean answered quietly. "I know it's strange because we've kissed plenty of times before, but...I don't know. Last night was...it was...well, it was like I finally felt all the passion I've always believed you capable of." Sean let out a sigh. "It made me realize how much I want more."

Liz's eyes squeezed shut as she silently scolded herself for her rash behavior the night before. She'd initially intended the kiss to prove a point to Max that he wasn't who she wanted and no matter how he made her feel she'd always be able to walk away...back to Sean. Instead, Max had perceived the underlying reason that drove her to that action and
Sean took it as a sign she was ready to take their relationship to an intimacy she'd been voiding for years. She was caught between a rock and a hard place now because of that kiss. When would she learn to think before she acted?

Unconscious of the tense silence on the other end of the line, Sean continued. "So, what do you say? Meet me at the airport?"

Liz swallowed hard. She hated hurting people. Especially people she loved. "Sean…I…I don't think…I can't."

Sean's voice chilled instantly. "You can't or you won't?"

"I can't." Liz repeated. "Look, there is so much going on right now…"

"It's him, isn't it?"

"Him who?"

"Max. He's the reason you won't go away with me…"

"Don't be ridiculous, Sean. I barely know the man." Liz said more defensively than she'd intended as she ran her fingers through her hair in agitation. "It's...it's just that there is so much going on right now at the Center."

"Right. The Center. You know that's always your excuse." Sean replied coldly. "I did some checking after last night's meeting with your Max Evans. I wondered why the two of you were so familiar with each other that you needed no introductions. There were too many unspoken…" Sean broke off his train of thought not willing to completely acknowledge the vibes he'd witnessed between Max and Kendall the night before. Saying it out loud would make it more real…less easy to dismiss. "Anyway, I found out that apparently, he's been volunteering at your precious Center. A little fact you neglected to tell me…"

Liz's anger flared instantly. "I really don't like what you're implying or the tone you're using, Sean. Since when am I to report to you every person that walks through the door where I work? And what exactly gives you the right to go behind my back and check up on me? And as for using the Center as an excuse, well you're wrong. You know…you have known from the beginning…how important my work is to me. It gives me a sense of accomplishment I've never had before. I can't begin to tell you how it feels knowing those kids need me…just like I need them."

"What about what I need, Kendall?" Sean said as his voice raised a notch in hostility. "Doesn't that matter to you?"

"Of course it matters to me." Liz said with a sigh. "It's just…"

"Just what?"

"What you want from me… Sean, I'm…still…not ready." Liz finished lamely. Truth was, Liz had never felt more ready to take something to the 'next level' physically with someone. It's just that someone she pictured when she closed her eyes had raven hair and deep midnight eyes that made her knees go weak with just a look. And those perfect lips…

Blocking out the sudden images that instantly sprang to her mind, Liz took a deep breath and began to plead with Sean. "Sean, please. You've always been so patient. I need you to understand…"

"Yeah. Sure. I understand alright." Sean said curtly. "Just remember understanding doesn't keep me warm at night. Good bye, Kendall."

The line went dead. Liz breathed in the cool night air and felt tears shimmer on the edge of her lashes. Why did Sean have to demand so much of her? No, that wasn't right to blame him. He'd been more than patient with her in so many areas on so many levels. Why was it then that she couldn't bring herself to give him the one thing he was asking for…herself?

Liz decided to move from the garden back toward Max's cottage. Maybe once she saw him and got her apology over and done with she'd feel better. Yeah, that would be best. Quick, to the point and easy. Then she could forget him and be on her way.

Liz shook her head at her own choice of words. Easy. Now when had anything in her life every been easy? Especially since Max's appearance in New Haven. It's not like her past with Chris was a bed of roses. It certainly wasn't. But at least she knew how to feel about him…complete, total fear and hatred. She knew how she should feel about Max. Nothing. Absolutely nothing. That was quickly becoming a futile effort on her part. She had to find some way to stop it.

As she rounded the corner and passed through the garden gate, Liz glanced up in time to see Max approaching his door from the main house of the B&B. Despite her own best intentions, an irrepressible smile slid over her lips when she saw him. His dark head was bent as he stood on the step under his porch light looking down at the keys in his hand. Liz had just opened her mouth to call out to him when suddenly his door flew open revealing a strikingly beautiful blonde standing in his doorway.

Liz's smile faded instantly when, without warning, the woman threw herself into Max's arms. As quick as lightening she wrapped her arms around his neck and pulled his head downward connecting his lips with hers in a kiss as hot as the afternoon sun.

Liz stayed long enough to recognize the scene before her for what it was…a lovers' secret rendezvous.
~~~~~~
A pair of dark eyes gleamed with delight as McKenna trained the binoculars on Liz's departing figure. "That's right, Liz. Show me where you go when you need comfort. Maybe that'll lead me to what's important to you…"

The ringing of McKenna's cell phone caused her to lose sight of Liz as she turned and headed back toward the garden where she disappeared behind a wall of leaves and petals. A wall McKenna wouldn't be able to break through without leaving the safety of her car and effectively blowing a perfect hiding spot.

"Damn." McKenna swore before hitting the on button of her phone. "Yes."

"Did I interrupt something, darling?" Duke asked casually as he noticed the curtness of the way she answered her phone.

A slight smile came to McKenna's face. "Duke. Yes, as a matter of fact you did."

"Really? Anything I'd be interested in?"

"Maybe. I was gathering information for you."

"Max and Kendall, I presume. And have you discovered anything yet?"

"No, not yet." McKenna glanced back at the scene being played out in front of Max's door as a sly smile came to her lips. "It shouldn't be long though. I took the liberty of introducing a new player in this little game."

"McKenna…I told you just to only observe…" Duke's voice took on a scolding tone.

"Oh, don't worry. I simply dropped a hint to someone about where Max was staying."

"McKenna…"

"Trust me, Duke. I know what I'm doing. This person will know just all the right buttons to push and she can sense competition a mile away. With her in the mix, before we know it, we'll know exactly what's going on between Max and Kendall… "
~~~~~~
Liz quickly brushed away the stubborn tears that had made it down her cheeks before knocking lightly on the door and slipping into Angel's sitting area.

"Liz. What are you doing here? I thought you were working tonight." Angel looked up from her book surprised and a bit concerned.

Liz stepped into the room and moved toward the couch, plopping down with a sigh of weariness. "I came to see Max. To apologize."

"Good." Angel responded noticing the hint of redness in Liz's eyes. Uh-oh. Must not have gone too well. "So, how did it go?"

"It didn't." Liz said as she reached over and began to straighten the blanket that had been carelessly dropped on the couch earlier.

Angel eyed her carefully. Max's earlier response when she talked to him hadn't been unyielding. Wonder what she did to him now… "Why not?"

"Because his girlfriend showed up, that's why." Liz said as her words were laced with an instant note of injured feelings.

"His girlfriend?" Angel's eyes opened wide in surprise. No, she must be mistaken. Max certainly hadn't been acting and speaking like a man with a girlfriend. At least, not a serious one. "Liz, are you sure…"

"If the kiss I just saw was any indication…" Liz let out a sigh as she flipped her hair behind her shoulders trying to be nonchalant but there was no mistaking the sudden disappointment and hurt in her eyes. Even a growing hint of jealousy…

"Oh. I see." Angel returned softly.

"It doesn't really matter anyway." Liz said with a shrug as she glanced up at Angel then back down at her hands. She was trying hard to not only convince Angel but herself as well that what she'd just seen didn't matter. That it hadn't sent a knife right through her heart and twisted her stomach into knots. That the thought of Max's lips on anyone's but hers was driving her to distraction. She was trying…and failing miserably.

Taking a deep breath, Liz forced herself to focus on anything but Max. Anything but the blonde standing in his doorway. "That's…that's not why I came to see you. I know what you did tonight and I really don't appreciate it."

"What are you talking about?"

"Letting Max watch Jaedan. Why did you do it?"

"Why?" Angel repeated her question. "Because of you."

"Me?"

"Yes. You made him feel like a failure today with that little stunt you pulled and I thought the least he deserved was a chance to prove that he isn't. At least to himself. And it worked. You should have seen him with her, Liz. He was so tender and loving…" Angel started.

"I don't care. I don't want her around him, Angel." Liz interrupted with determination as she crossed her arms in front of her. "You are not to let her see him again."

Angel looked up at her sharply. Studying her expression she could tell things didn't go as Liz had planned with her apology to Max. It looked like she'd been crying and the appearance of this new woman must have thrown her for a loop. Still, that was no reason to punish Jaedan. "Absolutely not." Angel answered calmly.

"What did you say?"

"I said no." Angel responded evenly. "She adores him and I think he fell in love tonight. There's no way I'm taking that away from either of them."

"You have no choice in the matter." Liz stated as she rose from the couch in agitation and pointed her finger to herself. "I am Jaedan's mother and as her mother I don't want her to start hanging around him."

Angel's eyes flash with irritation. "Fine. Then you tell her."

"What?"

"That's right. You look her in the eyes and tell her she can't see her Mr. Prince Charming again because I'm certainly not going to be the one to do it." Angel stated with determination equal to that of Liz's. "But before you do it, I just want you to ask yourself a question. Is your jealousy or…or your confusion about your feelings for Max enough to warrant hurting your daughter and taking away from her someone who could be a really good friend? Someone she needs in her life?"

"Look, Angel. This isn't about me or my relationship to Max...or any of my feelings." Liz stated trying to keep her voice calm. She only managed to make it shake even more. "Honestly, it isn't. This is about safety. Mine, yours and Jaedan's."

"Safety?" Angel asked in surprise. "You honestly think Max would do anything to hurt that little girl…"

"No, I don't. But I can't say the same for that woman I saw in his doorway."

Angel rolled her eyes. "Please, Liz. How can you stand there and make such an presumption? You don't even know this woman…"

"That's my point, Angel!" Liz practically yelled as she took a ragged breath. "I do know her. I know the woman Max is involved with. I know her very well and she's nothing but trouble. Big trouble…"
~~~~~~~~~
Max pulled back and extricated himself from his visitor's graspy and clingy arms as quickly as he could. "Tess. Wha…what are you doing here?"

Tess Harding beamed up at him. "I came to surprise you. Did it work?"

"Seeing as I wasn't expecting you…of course, it worked." Max stated simply wondering how in the world she found out where he was staying. He'd given strict instructions to Barbara not to tell anyone. "How…did you know where I was staying? How did you get in?"

Tess grabbed his hand and pulled him into the cottage closing the door behind them and leading him to the couch. "The door was unlocked. As for how I knew where you were, a friend of mine saw you here. I thought she must be mistaken at first because I simply couldn't imagine you staying anywhere so provincial."

Gently pushing him down onto the sofa, Tess slid onto his lap and wrapped her arms around him. "Now that I'm here, I can't think of a better place to have a nice romantic getaway for two…"

She leaned in for another kiss but Max pulled back suddenly and eased her off his lap onto the couch. "Uhhh, let's not push our luck here, Tess. I'm sure this isn't your idea of perfect." Getting up Max headed toward the kitchen. "Look, you've had a long trip. Do you want anything to drink or are you hungry for anything?"

Not to be put off so easily Tess followed him to the kitchen and attempted to wrap her arms around his waist as she whispered. "Only you."

Max removed her hands from around him and turned to face her. "Tess, what are you doing? We've been over this. I enjoy your company and we always manage to have fun together, but a friendship is all I'm looking for right now. You know that."

"I know that's what you say now..." Tess interrupted him as she looked up into his eyes coyly. "I just happen to think you're not being completely honest with yourself. Besides, who says we can't be friends who sleep together? Just thinking of you sets my world on fire, Max." Tess ran her hands up his chest to wrap around his neck once more as she whispered. "Imagine what we could do if together if we acted out those thoughts…"

Max turned his face away from her puckering lips as his hands reached up and unfastened her arms from around his neck with a firmness that couldn't be more obvious if he tried. Placing his hands on her shoulders, Max gently pushed her back a few steps when there was a sudden knock on the door. "Excuse me, Tess." Grinning with relief and anticipation, Max removed her arms from his neck and headed toward the door. "I was expecting a friend…"

Max threw the door open as his grin widened into a full-blown smile. "Alex!" Max pulled Alex into a bear hug and patted him on the back.

"Hey, man! Looking as ugly as ever." Alex said as he returned Max's hug and entered the cottage.

Max laughed good-naturedly and closed the door behind them. "Yeah, well, I figured I'd put on my worst face and give you a chance with the ladies. How've ya been?"

Alex glanced around the living room and nodded. "Good. Really good. Much better than you, from the looks of it." Alex picked up a floral pillow from the sofa and turned toward Max holding it in front of him with a raised eyebrow. "Really, Max. Floral?"

Max started to laugh as he grabbed up the other pillow from the sofa and spun it in his hands. "Floral or not, it's still good for pillow fights…" Max commented as he wiggled his eyebrows and raised the pillow as if ready to strike.

"Well, if I'd known pillow fights would get you this excited, I'd have suggested that first."

Alex's eyes widened in surprise as he looked in the direction of the sultry voice that had interrupted his and Max's playful reunion. Seeing it wasn't the woman he'd expected…or at least hoped would be holed up with Max somewhere, Alex turned a curious look back on Max.

Max rolled his eyes before turning around and addressing Tess. "Forgive my rudeness. I'd like to introduce you to a friend. Tess, this is Alex Whitman. Alex, this is Tess Harding."

Tess advanced into the room and held out her hand to Alex as she flashed him a practiced smile. "Pleased to meet me, I'm sure."

Alex shook her hand and blinked a couple of times to make sure he'd heard her correctly before glancing and Max. Max bowed his head and shook it slightly before Tess turned to him and linked her arm through his. "So, darling, what are we going to do tonight?"

Irritation flashed in Max's eyes and he looked from Alex to Tess. "Well, I hadn't really planned on doing anything tonight but catching up with my friend, Alex, here."

"Yes, well, I'm here now. I'm sure you can just change your plans…"

Max removed Tess' hand from his arm and moved with determination to the sofa picking up Tess' purse and overnight luggage. Returning to her side, Max handed the items to her. "No, Tess, we can't. Alex and I have a lot to discuss and it's going to take a while. Now, since I wasn't expecting you, I'm sure you'll understand…"

Tess' mouth dropped open. "But…but where am I supposed to stay?"

"I hear the New Haven Hotel is nice. Or you could stay here at the B&B. I could talk to Angel for you..." Max suggested in an unbending tone of voice.

"But…I thought…you and I…" Tess looked from Max to Alex then back again as realization began to dawn on her that Max was being completely serious.

Max moved to stand in front of Tess blocking Alex's view of her as he lowered his voice to minimize her level of embarrassment…if that was even an emotion she could feel...which Max seriously doubted at this point. "Well, maybe next time you think about you and I you'll remember what I've told you in the past and forget your plans."

Taking her elbow, Max gently ushered a stunned Tess out the door, leaned down and placed a chaste kiss on her cheek then called out a cheery 'Good night' to her. Turning back to Alex he closed the door and leaned against it with a sigh.

Alex's eyebrow raised as planted his hands on his hips and eyed Max curiously. "What the hell was that?"

Max shook his head with a roll of his eyes. "That, my friend, was trouble with a capital 'T'…"

To be continued…


posted on 21-Oct-2001 9:10:54 PM
~ chapter 21~

"Trouble, huh?" Alex repeated as he made a circular gesture with his hand for Max to keep the conversation going as he quickly moved to the mantle and ran his hand along the underside. "I don't know, Max. Looks like she's a nice piece of trouble plenty of guys I know wouldn't mind taking off your hands."

"Yes, but most of the guys you know have just come off of 48 hour surveillance or longer. Medusa would look good to them." Max said absently as he watched his friend move with ease throughout the room checking for something. By the look on Alex's face and the items he was checking Max guessed he was looking for some kind of listening devices. Now the only question was why.

"Don't get me wrong…from the outside looking in, Tess' got it all. Looks, brains, money…"

"A body that never quits." Alex interrupted as he looked under the shade of each lamp and got on his knees to check under the end and coffee tables.

Max grinned briefly before instinctively slipping into his 'spy' mode and turning his attention to the phone. He deftly removed the mouthpiece top and looked inside to see if anything was out of place. Not seeing anything he held it up to Alex and shook his head. Keeping his tone conversational Max continued their discussion.

"Yeah, that too. But when you get beneath the surface on her…well, there's really nothing to see."

Alex nodded in answer to Max's gesture and pointed to the painting above the fireplace. "Yeah, well, you know what they say…the only ones who look beneath the surface are fools who rush in…"

Max put the phone down and moved to the other side of the painting. "…where angels fear to tread." Max finished as he and Alex lifted the painting and made a quick sweep with their eyes then replaced the painting after not seeing anything. "Yeah, I know."

Locking eyes with Max, Alex nodded and made an 'o' shape with his forefinger and thumb to indicate the room they were in was bug free then nodded in the direction of the door. "So, I take it you're a fool then."

Max gave Alex an understanding nod then began to flip off the lights and grabbed his jacket and keys. "You're only a fool if you really care. And believe me, I don't plan on caring enough to let anyone make a fool out of me."

Alex patted Max on the back and agreed with a grin as he followed Max out the door. "I'm with you on that one, my friend. There are definitely no fools in these quarters. Not a single one…"
~~~~~~~~~~
"What do you mean you know her?" Angel asked as she leaned forward and eyed Liz carefully.

"I mean I know her…from my past. Before Chris."

"How?"

"Boarding school. Tess was the belle of the place. Her daddy had the most money and Tess had the best of everything. Clothes, room...boyfriends. She was the kind of girl that all awkward girls hated because she'd use them by making fun of them to show off her many accomplishments. For a chubby, anti-social clutz like me, she was the human version of a worst nightmare."

"So, she picked on you." Angel surmised perceptibly.

"Tormented me would be more like it." Liz said as she glanced up at Angel. "Each class period it was the same. She'd find a way to call me out or put me down. I hated her..." Liz smiled slightly. "...until people found out I had something she didn't. Talent."

"When Madame Fortier discovered my paintings one day I was suddenly thrust into the spotlight. Not as an outcast anymore but as a phenomenon. A 'child genius'. Daddy couldn't ignore me anymore with so much publicity and at the prompting of the head mistress I applied to take art lessons from one of the most famous art teachers of our time…Monsieur Jean Pierre Chenard."

"He was very exclusive and incredibly selective in choosing his students. He only taught six a year and only the most gifted and brilliant of students could get in. Except Tess Harding." Liz spoke her name as if it were a disgusting disease she'd just discovered. "Tess' father bought her way into the same class I was accepted into."

"You didn't come from the poorest of families, Liz." Angel reminded her still feeling this aversion to 'Tess' had just as much to do with the fact Liz saw her kissing Max as it did because of their past experience in boarding school. Although, from what it sounded like, that certainly would be cause enough to want to avoid meeting up with her again if at all possible.

"You're right, I didn't. But one thing I can say for Jeff Parker…he never had to pay for a dime of my special tutoring that I didn't pay back to him a hundred fold with my exhibitions and concerts. He may have never loved me, but he certainly loved the money I kept rolling into the family coffers. Until father died and Chris stole it all…"

Liz sat back down as a hardness claimed her voice. "Tess, on the other hand, was never worthy of the honor of being one of Chenard's students. I mean, she painted fine for a first year art student, but it wasn't the perfect Chenard standard. Not even close. "

"You were children then, Liz. It's hard to expect such consistent perfection from anyone..." Angel started.

"It was expected of me." Liz interrupted as she raised her eyes sharply to Angel's face.
"Every day. Every brushstroke. Every musical score I wrote on a piece of paper. I wasn't allowed mistakes, Angel. I was the best because it was expected of me. Anything less
was...unacceptable." She looked back down at the pillow in her hands and began playing with the fringes. "Maybe that's why I found marrying Chris appealing. He wanted nothing to do with my talents and expected me to feel the same way."

Angel sat quietly watching Liz's sad expression realizing this was a side of herself Liz had never revealed. "You've never really talked about any of this before. Your days in school...your time in the spotlight."

"There was never a need." Liz stated simply.

"And now you feel there is." Bringing Liz back to her original complaint, Angel asked quietly. "I understand not wanting Jaedan exposed to such a person as Tess, but what does knowing her have to do with Jaedan's safety?"

Liz looked back up at her surprised that it wasn't as clear to Angel as it was to herself. "Why…she'll recognize me. That's what it has to do with Jaedan's safety."

Angel's eyebrow shot up. "She'll recognize you. After all this time?" She started to chuckle gently at the seriousness of Liz's expression. "Liz, come on. It's been over ten years since you've taken art lessons. The girl you described is a far cry from the woman sitting before me. You've changed a lot just in the six I've known you. I'm sure this Tess person won't even blink if she ever meets you again. And she certainly won't put it together that you are Jaedan's mother. Especially if she only sees her with Max."

"That's my point, Angel. I don't want her seeing Jaedan at all." Liz took a deep breath before trying to explain. "Besides Tess being the witch that she is, she doesn't have the nicest connections. Her family dabbles a little with the organization. It's nothing major and all very well hidden, but it's still there. The only reason I know that is because she and her father attended a few 'family' functions, the kind where all of the deals were made in the back rooms while the beautiful people danced in the front halls for the cameras to throw the world off the scent of what was really going on."

Liz let out a sigh and ran her fingers through her hair. "Point is, Tess was dancing with famous playboys while 'daddy' was selling his soul to the devil. Now, I doubt she ever had any real personal contact or even knew what went on at those parties, but the connection is a little too close for my comfort. Now, since Tess and Max are involved, if Jaedan's as taken with Max as you say she is…"

"Oh, she's more than taken. She asked if he'd tuck her in tonight." Angel revealed unable to hide a victorious grin amidst the seriousness of the conversation.

"You're kidding." Liz said in awe. "She won't let anyone but you or me do that. Pitches a fit if the suggestion is even raised." Liz paused a moment and began biting her lip as she contemplated asking Angel a question.

Hearing the answer had the potential of pulling her heart an inch or two more in Max's direction and she wasn't quite sure she was ready for that. Flipping her hair nervously behind her shoulders Liz glanced up at Angel then back down again. "So, um…how did he do?"

Angel's smile widened as she leaned forward. "He was perfect. First he carried her up to her room. Then he helped her pick out her gown…she wore her Belle gown because they read Beauty together tonight. He brushed her hair for her and I'll have you know he had her brushing her teeth without one peep of protest. And afterward, he made her smile for him so he could pass on the word to the Walla-Walla Fairy that she was a good girl so the Walla-Walla Fairy would visit her tonight?"

"The Walla-Walla Fairy?" Liz asked as a slow amused smile spread over her face.

Angel nodded her head with a chuckle. "Yeah, apparently the Walla-Walla Fairy is a special Aborignial fairy from Australia that brings treats to little girls who brush their teeth really well and without making a fuss. Something called sniffums and kacnaps."

Liz burst into unexpected aughter. "Sniffums and what?"

"Kacnaps." Angel repeated before rolling her eyes and explaining. "Pancakes and muffins spelled backwards and with a few variations. Only Jaedan doesn't know that and Max is bringing them tomorrow morning so they can have a special breakfast together."

"Aww, that's so…"

"Sweet." Angel finished for her. "I know. Then he knelt with her by her window seat while she wished on her star and said her bedtime prayers. Then when he tucked her in…" Angel said with a quiet smile. "…you know the best part?"

Liz shook her head silently, afraid to say a word.

"The best part was when he leaned over and kissed her good night. He told her it was time to close her eyes and dream. Because he just knew if anyone's 'happy ever after' dreams would come true, they would be hers. I'm telling you, Liz, I was ready to cry on the spot. He was so precious with her. Somehow, this man who thinks he doesn't have a prayer in heaven with children managed to do and say everything absolutely perfect with her."

Liz blinked back the tears that sprang to her eyes and tried to swallow the lump in her throat. Seeing how her story of the evening's events had affected Liz, Angel finished by making her point clear. "Do you see now why I don't want to be the one to tell her she can't see him any more? They relate to each other in a way I've never seen before. It's so…beautiful."

Angel paused before continuing. "We can work around this Tess thing, Liz. I'm sure of it. I'll keep an eye out to make sure she doesn't suspect anything. Besides, Max promised your daughter sniffums and kacnaps. Do you really want to be the reason she has to cry over her first broken promise?"

Liz looked away a moment before rising and heading toward the door. She paused with her hand on the knob and her back to Angel. When she spoke her voice was low and steady. "Keep contact with Tess to a minimum. She's bad news if we don't watch it."

Turning slightly Liz's voice softened to an almost whisper and Angel could swear she saw tears glistening in her eyes. "As for the rest…I just hope the Walla-Walla Fairy is as good as he seems because if he's not…we'll have more than a broken promise on our hands."
~~~~~~~~~
Max and Alex slid into their seats at a corner table at Rosie's and glanced through the menus. After deciding to order coffee and pie they waited till the waitress had delivered their orders before Max leaned back and eyed Alex. "You want to tell me what that search was about?"

Alex leaned forward and lowered his voice after glancing around the near empty room. "When we were on the phone earlier I thought I heard something. Call it paranoia from a life in the agency, but I got the distinct feeling we were being listened to."

Max nodded as he pursed his lips. "That's why you suggested coming instead of talking on the phone."

Alex nodded. "But since we didn't find anything…"

"We didn't check everywhere." Max stated calmly. "There is a phone in the bedroom. Not to mention the devices that are placed on the line and not the individual phones."

"Right." Alex agreed. "That's why I wanted to get out of there. I think we need to do a clean sweep, but until then I have a very, very important question for you."

"What's that?" Max asked solemnly as he leaned forward.

Alex let loose a brilliant smile. "What's really up with Blondie the Bold and Beautiful?"

Max rolled his eyes as he began to chuckle. "Nothing. At least that's what I keep trying to tell her."

"Doesn't listen well, huh?" Alex asked as he took a sip of coffee.

"You were there. Did she look like she was listening to you?" Max asked with an irritated shake of his head as he stabbed a piece of pie and put it in his mouth.

Alex chuckled. "Uh, no. Then again, most men wouldn't consider that a problem. She is pretty…"

"Ornamental." Max finished for him as he put his fork down and gazed out the window behind Alex. "That's all she is to me…an ornament on the Christmas tree of Life. I take her out and display her once in a while, and even she has the ability to shine for a brief moment when the lights are on and everyone is looking at her. Then the moment is gone and I realize that all she can offer is momentary glitter when what I really want is the constantly shining star that burns bright in the velvety night sky."

A moment of silence followed Max's contemplative speech then the room suddenly erupted into gales of laughter Alex could no longer hold in. "A…shining…star….velvet…sky…"

Max rolled his eyes and shook his head with an embarrassed grin. "Hey, stop that. I've seen you wax poetic at times."

"You call that poetry…" Alex said as he wiped the tears from his eyes. "I can do better than that with a bottle of tequila and several rounds of whisky in me."

Max flung a crumpled napkin at Alex. "Yes, but you need alcohol to get the creative juices flowing. I don't." After Alex's laughter had died down, Max became suddenly motivated by a new purpose. "Look, I just want to forget about Tess tonight. I'll have her to deal with tomorrow. What I really want now is for you to tell me what you found out about Liz."

Alex leaned back in the seat and crossed his arms over his chest, staring at Max a moment while a teasing glint entered his eyes. He shook his head and made a clicking noise with his tongue. "Tsk. Tsk. Tsk. You're so impatient."

"In fact, you never cease to amaze me, you know it? You're like a complete babe magnet yet you never want the ones you can have. Here you are in this po-dunk town. You immediately get your hands full with four beautiful, intriguing, completely irresistible women who seem to have a knack for either avoiding or resisting you. Then when you're ready to find out who they all are so you can pick which one you want to make a move on, your gorgeous girlfriend shows up and you don't ever want her. If you ask me, there's something wrong with you."

"Hey, she's not my girlfriend. Now would you please stop giving your assessment of my romantic life and tell me what you found out about Liz?" Max shot back defensively as he pointed an emphatic finger at Alex then calmed instantly as Alex's words began to make sense. "Wait a minute. What do you mean? Are you telling me you found out who the artist and the singer are too?"

"Sure did. Not to mention Laine Matthews."

A grin broke out on Max's face and his eyes jumped to life with excitement. "Alright. That's it. No more stalling. Tell me what you know and how the hell did you find out everything so quickly?"

Alex shrugged his shoulders then stretched nonchalantly as he let out an arrogant, self-satisfied sigh. "I'm good, that's how." Seeing Max's raised eyebrow Alex chuckled and added as he leaned across the table locking eyes with Max. "Alright. Truth is it's not all that difficult…when they're all the same woman."
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Liz slipped into Jaedan's room and closed the door quietly behind her. She tiptoed to her bed and carefully knelt down next to her daughter smiling as she watched Jaedan's chest rise and fall with her steady breathing.

She reached over and barely ran her hand along Jaedan's hair brushing it lightly away from her shoulders. "I heard you had a special treat tonight, sweetie. You got to spend the evening with your very own Prince Charming." Liz whispered. "Angel was right, you know. Watching the two of you together…was one of the most…beautiful things I've ever seen."

"That's why I can't bring myself to take him away from you…because I'd be taking him away from me too. I'm just not ready to do that. See, you have a luxury I simply can't afford. You can believe in him openly…with no reservations because you don't know the danger of loving someone. You don't understand that one day he'll leave. Maybe not because he wants to, but because he has to. His life is different from ours, honey. In so many ways. Even if we found a way somehow to come together it will only end up driving us apart."

Liz reached up and caressed Jaedan's smooth cheek gently. "I guess…I guess what I'm trying to say is…enjoy him for as long as you can, sweetie, but don't love him too much. I have the feeling this Prince comes around only once in a lifetime and once he's gone…nothing will ever be the same again. So, you dream for the both of us as long as you can, ok? I'll stay awake, with my eyes wide open, and watch for the signs that tell us this fairy tale is about to end and…hope I've done the right thing by not opening your eyes too."

Liz leaned over and kissed Jaedan lightly on the cheek and turned away quickly unaware of the tear that had fallen from the corner of her eye to land on Jaedan's face.
~~~~~~~~~~
"What?" Max asked as his eyes widened in surprise.

"Every last one of them. It's kinda like the bone song." Alex nodded as he started to sway to unheard music and began to sing the familiar school tune only substituting his own words instead. "Your renter's bone's connected to your...painter's bone. Your painter's bone's connected to your...singer's bone. Your singer's bone's connected to your..."

"Liz bone?" Max said with a laugh at the way Alex totally killed the 'bone' song. "Whoever came up with that song ought to sue you for destroying it."

Alex winked at him. "Got the point across, didn't it?"

Max's eyes began to twinkle as he let out a sigh. "Wow. I can't believe this. I mean, you really aren't kidding me. They're all..." Completely floored, Max ran out of words and sat back for a moment as his mind tried to grasp what Alex was telling him.

Yes, it all fit together. The singer in the gazebo at the B&B. The painter that Angel knew but wouldn't introduce him to. Liz knowing Angel... It all made perfect sense. Now, why hadn't he seen it more clearly before? For some reason, that question sent a shiver of fear through him. Perhaps because he'd been trying to fight a few of his own dragons in this pursuit of his. Max nodded to himself and glanced back up at Alex. "Tell me how you found out."

Alex grinned at Max's excitement. Sitting across from him now, Alex was reminded just how much he missed his former partner. And just how futile that feeling was since Max would never again work for the Bureau. Pulling his thoughts to the present Alex shrugged his shoulders. "It wasn't that hard once I recognized the pattern."

"The pattern."

"Yeah, remember how we couldn't find anything on Kendall. Anything out of the norm anyway? Well, I took the CD you gave me and ran a fingerprints check on it. No prints. She, whoever 'she' was, must have wiped them which means that she's used to cleaning up after herself. Why? I don't know...maybe trying to keep a clean slate unless someone's watching, right? So, I ran Laine Matthews through the system. Almost the same exact set up as Kendall Blake. She was so normal her profile almost put me to sleep. Which in this case was a good thing."

"Why?" Max asked as he leaned forward completely engrossed in Alex's line of reasoning.

"I figured I could use a good cup of coffee and some music to perk me up." Alex wiggled his eyebrows. "Any guess as to what I listened to?"

"Her cd." Max answered with a smile, knowing he would have done the same thing if he'd been on the case.

"Bingo." Alex said as he pointed a finger at Max. "As soon as I heard that first word I knew exactly what we were dealing with...not to mention whom."

"So...who is she?" Max asked feeling as if Alex's next words would turn his world upside down and he was amazed at how eager for it to happen he really was.

Alex leaned back with a satisfied sigh and reached for his coffee. Taking a long slow sip he pretended not to notice Max's rising eagerness.

Seeing the mischief in Alex's eyes, Max rolled his and lowered his gaze to the table rubbing his forehead, a sure sign of frustration. "Alex." Max was trying to remain calm but his voice betrayed the frustration and anxious irritation he was beginning to feel. "If you had any idea how close I am right now to throttling you..." Max looked back up at him just as Alex's face broke into a teasing smile. "You're loving this, aren't you?"

"Best time I've had in my life." Alex responded then looked off in the distance as if remembering something. "Except for that time on the plane to Lybia with that stewardess..."

"ALEX!" Max yelled in frustration before glancing around with an apologetic grin to customers at the other tables. Turning back to Alex he lowered his voice and tried to keep it from sounding terse with anticipation. "Would you please just tell me who she is?"

Deciding to finally give his friend a break Alex reached down in his travel pack and pulled out
a manilla folder. Tossing it on the table Alex looked back up at Max. "In there is all the information I could find on Ms. Liz Parker."
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
She moved stealthily through the apartment. It was a good thing Liz hadn't returned home yet. It would give her the perfect opportunity to check through her things for a clue...any clue. She had to find something. And soon. Something that was important enough to Liz to use against her. Something that would cause her the greatest pain and make her all that more malleable when the time was right...

McKenna stepped from the living room into the bedroom taking a quick sweep of her surroundings. A disgusted scowl graced her face as she noted the decor and wondered how in the world anyone could live in something so...quaint and fluffy.

Riffling through the drawers in Liz's desk McKenna let out a sigh. Nothing...again. She glanced at her watch keeping herself aware of the time and decided to give up on finding any papers. She'd just have to come do the job she'd intended.

She moved quietly to the phone jack and removed the phone line. She had to admit she really loved these new bugs. One size fit all. Just attach to the line and it would pick up on every conversation coming and going. Attaching the tiny listening film to the line she replaced the cord in the jack and moved back through the apartment to the living room.

Glancing around once more, McKenna couldn't help but feel disappointed her labor hadn't produced any more fruit. That was alright. Her next stop at the cottage should give her the real goods on Elizabeth Parker Santoro.
~~~~~~~~~~
Max looked up at Alex after having spent a good twenty minutes in silent review of the folder Alex had provided him. "Wow. Quite a story so far. How much more of this is there?" Max asked as he flipped through the rest of the pages he hadn't even had a chance to glance through.

"Quite a bit. Mostly from my own collection of memorabilia. I can give you the nuts and bolts if you want." Alex said as he noticed how Max's eyes had taken on a hint of pain as he'd begun reading Liz's file.

Max nodded silently as he leaned forward and crossed his arms on the table readying himself to listen. Seeing Max was ready Alex launched into what he knew of the intriguing Liz Parker who had captured his friend's attention so completely. "Basic story…she's the daughter of Jeff and Nancy Parker..."

"Wait a sec." Max stopped Alex with an upraised hand as his mind began to whirl with the ramification of this new information. Especially in terms of Parker Industries. "You mean to tell me Liz is Emily Parker's sister?"

"Half-sister. They never really got along growing up. Seems Emily was 'the perfect' child, adored by Jeff, while Liz was left out in the cold more often then not. That is until she was discovered when she was about eleven."

"Discovered." Max repeated. "You mean her singing."

"Actually, it was her painting that got attention first. She was in one of those stuffy boarding schools in Europe when the head mistress took notice of her. She saw how she would sit for hours by herself with a notepad on her lap staring into space. Come to find out space wasn't what she was staring at. It was these incredible masterpieces she could see in her mind. She'd do pencil sketches then go back to her room while everyone else was slipping out to pull pranks and wreak havoc, she'd paint instead."

"These paintings are unreal, Max." Alex stated with growing excitement as he leaned across the table. "Get this. She was able to talk to two people at different times, have them describe something to her then she'd paint one painting combining both concepts so that when those people saw they painting they believed they were seeing the exact replica of what they described to her. Two paintings in one...blended to perfection. Her art...it's...breathtaking."

"So, I've seen…" Max commented softly.

"Really? Where? I've not seen her work in years." Alex's blue eyes flashed with instant interest and excitement.

"Here in New Haven. At the B&B…" Max smiled as he remembered taking Jaedan to her room earlier to tuck her in. "There is the most amazing mural in Jaedan's bedroom. It starts out on one wall as softly rolling hills with lakes and flowers all around and a castle in the background. Then where Jaedan has her play area with all of her dolls, she's painted it as if Jaedan's sitting in her protected turret high in the sky looking down on the kingdom below just like all the real princesses she believes in. The wall where her bed is...it fades into night with stars all around her and a moon and more stars painted on the ceiling high above.

"You're kidding." Alex shook his head. "That sounds..." Not able to come up with a word to explain what Max had described his mind jumped instead to the person Max had referenced so much. "Who's this Jaedan?"

Max's face broke into a full-fledged smile. "Only the most beautiful little girl I've ever seen. She's Angel's granddaughter. Angel runs the B&B and I've gotten to know her a little. In fact, I..." Max looked away sheepishly as he finished his sentence. "...I babysat her tonight. That's how I saw her room."

Alex shook his head in disbelief. "You? Babysat?" Breaking out into laughter, Alex's eyes began to tear up again. "Wow! You certainly are full of surprises lately!"

Max laughed at Alex's good-natured ribbing as he gazed into his coffee. "Yeah, I have to admit this town has been making me do some pretty weird things."

"The town or one special woman in it?" Alex asked with a raised eyebrow.

Max cleared his throat as he could feel his cheeks grow hot with embarrassment. "So, why don't you fill me in on the musical career of Liz Parker?"

Seeing Max's blush and knowing how hard he was trying to not admit his feelings for her, Alex nodded and continued the story of Liz's life. "Voice like an angel, but I gather you already knew that. She was also able to compose music off the top of her head. Someone could call out a timing, key and style of music they wanted a piece to be composed in and she'd sit right at the piano and compose it. Right there in front of everyone. Her concerts were...unbelievable."

Alex's eyes took on a shine as he put his chin in his hand and a dreamy smile spread across his face. "Man, could that girl move." He let out a low sigh and continued dreamily. "The way her body swayed to the music..."

"Alex." Max said as he reached across the table and gently shook his arm as a slow grin spread over his face amused by his friend's sudden change of mood.

"...made grown men cry she was that hot." Alex finished his thought barely phased by Max's presence.

"Alex." Max said with more force this time, his smile fading as Alex's tone of voice suddenly started to disturb him for some reason.

"You know why they never sent her on tour to Iceland? Afraid she'd melt all the ice and they wouldn't have a country anymore. I've actually seen temperatures rise just at the mention of her name…"

"Ok, Alex. Got the point." Max said as irritation flashed in his darkening eyes. For some reason hearing anyone, even Alex, talk about Liz that way made him a little…jealous and...he wasn't quite sure what else.

"Oh, man." Alex said as his gaze returned to Max's face.

"What?"

"That really bothered you, didn't it? Me talking about Liz that way. My God. You're in love with her." Alex commented as a slow understanding grin caused the corners of his mouth to twitch suddenly.

"Yeah, right." Max scoffed with a shrug. "I'm in love with a woman I've known less than two weeks...a woman I know nothing about. Get real, Alex. I just...it didn't…bother me. I just think…she's a real person, you know. Not just a series of curves that start with a beautiful face or this larger-than-life image the media apparently made of her. Or even the teenage crush you've apparently been nursing all these years." Max jabbed flippantly.

"Whoa! You've got it so bad." Alex responded with a full-blown grin when he saw Max's defenses come up so instantly and so strongly. Leaning over the counter Alex crossed his arms on the table and lowered his voice. "So what's it like?"

"What?" Max asked as he flipped open the folder and riffled through some the papers till he came to a picture of Liz. His hand stopped mid-air as his eyes focused with intense interest on the beautiful face that smiled up at him from the 5x7 glossy.

"Kissing her. I hope you realize at one time it was every man's dream..."

"For some it still is." Max whispered under his breath while looking down at the picture of Liz he held in his hands.

A shocked grin spread over Alex's face as he saw the completely distracted look in Max's eyes. "You haven't done it yet, have you?" A chuckle escaped. "My God. You really are in love if you haven't weaseled a kiss out of her yet. So, what exactly are you waiting for, Max? Hell to freeze over? Cuz I've got news for you, pal…not going to happen with Liz Parker around."

"Yeah, well. Kissing a flame…not exactly high on the 'Keeping Your Heart Scorch-free' list. Max responded dryly before clearing his throat again and taking a sip of his now lukewarm coffee. Ignoring Alex's raised eyebrow, Max asked one of his own as he turned to the next picture, his eyebrows furrowing in instant dislike and concentration. Max slipped it over to Alex. "Who's the guy? They certainly look cozy if not happy."

"What makes you think she doesn't look happy?" Alex asked curiously as he leaned over the picture and stared at it intently.

"Her eyes." Max answered confidently. "They sparkle when she really smiles." He pointed to her smile. "It's only touching her lips in this one. No, she was definitely not happy with this guy. So, who is he?"

Alex's demeanor changed immediately as he took the photo from Max and held it in his hands for a moment. "He's where the witness protection eventually came in." Alex stated with an edge to his voice.

Max glanced up sharply as he noticed Alex's sudden of attitude. "Boyfriend?"

Alex shook his head and handed the picture back to Max. "Husband. That was their engagement picture."

Max inclined his head to the side and blinked slowly a couple of times trying to be sure he actually heard Alex right. "She's...married?"

"She was." Alex corrected before looking back up at Max and explaining his statement in more detail. "When she was 17 the management of her recording career was turned over from her father to someone else. Someone who had a lot of power. Someone who was connected to the mob." Alex indicated the dark-haired man in the photo with his arm around Liz's shoulder. "Christopher Santoro. People on the street called him Santa. A play on his last name and because of all the charitable contributions he made to the community."

"Squeaky clean rep, but in all actuality he was the mob boss for the lower east side of NYC. Very powerful. Very dirty. On her 18th birthday they were married. From all indications they were very happy together. At least every article I ever saw made it sound like a fairy tale romance..."

Max shook his head as he recognized the sadness in her eyes once more. "Fairy tale. No wonder she doesn't believe in them any more." Max tossed the photo into the manila folder and looked up at Alex sharply. "All I can say is she must be one hell of an actress to put on such a show. Let me guess, she was the one who turned against him."

Alex nodded as he pursed his lips. He was mystified by Max's apparent knowledge of the inner workings of this particular woman's heart. Especially since he was so adamant about barely knowing her. "Yeah, I'm sure she did. My timing's off here a little, but I think it was a year or two later that he ended up in jail and she 'died' in a car accident around the same time. I'm sure you can guess how that came about and where things went from there."

Alex shifted in his seat and leaned over the table. "I'm really surprised you know nothing about this. It was huge news at the time."

Max nodded as his eyes took on a distant look. "Yeah, I'm sure it was, but if you remember I was having a hard time determining my own name when all of this was going on in the 'outside world'."

Alex looked away and whispered. "Yeah, I remember." Trying to lighten the suddenly serious mood Alex grinned and made a suggestion. "Hey. You said you've seen her paintings. Let's say you take me to one of them. I'd love to see some of her work again."

Max grinned suddenly as a mischievous twinkle lit his eyes. "Ok. I know the perfect place. We can kill two birds with one stone."

Alex raised a questioning eyebrow to which Max responded with a slap on the back and a chuckle. "Hope you've got your climbing shoes, pal. We've got a cd to return..."
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Max and Alex slipped through the window into Liz's studio with little to no difficulty. As Max headed in the direction of the cd player to replace the cd, Alex was instantly drawn to the easel in the center of the room.

Pointing his flashlight in that general direction he pulled the cloth off the painting and shone his flashlight on the art sitting before him. His eyes widened and he let out a low whistle. "This is...unreal."

Max carefully replaced the cd in it's original place pleased to see that nothing had changed in the last few days. Apparently Liz hadn't been up here since the day she'd tossed her art supplies out the window. Breathing a sigh of relief that she at least would never know someone had been there Max turned back to the center of the room where Alex was intently studying Liz's latest creation.

Moving to stand next to him, Max whispered. "Amazing isn't it? The way she captures the boldness of the West but softens it with the trickling waterfall..."

Alex turned a steady unbelieving gaze on Max. "What are you talking about?" Alex shook his head as he pointed to the painting. "Don't you see what that is...who that is?"

Max turned his gaze back onto the landscape. "Yeah. It's a landscape of the mesas in the West..."

Alex put a restraining hand on Max's shoulder as he whispered through the darkness. "Max. Look deeper. The stormy ovals. The amber sunbursts. The bubbly river. Man, that's not just the scenery of the West she painted. That's a portrait...of you."

As soon as the words were out of Alex's mouth the portrait before him became distinctly clear. And time seemed to stand still. Right along with his heart. Max's mouth dropped open in shock and the breath in his lung seemed to freeze in mid-inhale as the blood in his veins began to awaken with new life.

No one had ever known him like this. No one had ever looked in his eyes and just…

Max couldn't find the words. Or even the thoughts. A fear raced through him with such force Max felt as if the floor under his feet was shaking. Along with that fear came an overwhelming shiver of excitement. He felt exactly like he had all those years ago. Getting ready for a mission. Heart pounding irregularly. Fingers tingling with anticipation. Every nerve in his body alert to every sound, sight, tremor. The adrenaline rush so strong even his bones ached for action. For completeness. For danger.

No wonder he'd been so drawn to it when he was there before. Each emotion he'd felt emanating from the portrait had been emotions he'd felt earlier that day when he'd had that flashback. The pain and fear somehow surrounded by hope when he heard Liz's voice calling out to him. Every brushstroke, every bold color chosen, each line and curve of his face radiated the very person he had become. And Liz Parker had managed to capture it all...

What an amazing rush. To not only be inside of her so deeply that inspiration was renewed and a masterpiece was born, but the intimacy of being known so thoroughly by someone was just…it was staggering…

A sudden loud sound downstairs caused Max and Alex to jump and turn toward the door. "Is that her?" Alex whispered.

Max shook his head. "I don't think so. I didn't hear the car. Just in case..."

"Time to vamoos." Alex finished as he flipped the cloth back over Liz's portrait of Max and headed toward the window with Max in tow.

Slipping down the trellis to the ground Max and Alex carefully rounded the corner of the cottage and headed toward the direction of their car when Max heard a noise and turned to see a black clad person running as fast as they could in the opposite direction. Max grabbed Alex's arm stopping him in his hurried retreat and spinning him around to face the escaping intruder not of their party.

"Who the hell...?" Alex whispered as he squinted his eyes to see better into the darkness.

"I don't know." Max breathed heavily. "But I don't like this, Alex. I don't like this at all..."

to be continued...

posted on 21-Oct-2001 9:13:04 PM
~ chapter 21 b~

Next morning:

Alex awoke to the sound of clashing pans and slamming cupboards. He stumbled into the kitchen and squinted against the mixed glare of the morning sun and kitchen lighting just as Max turned toward the stove. The suddenness of his move and the position of his arm caused a large mixing bowl that was sitting precariously on the counter to topple to the floor with a thud.

"Damn!" Max exclaimed as he tossed a towel on the counter and loudly threw a spatula in the sink before kneeling by the fallen bowl and its contents.

"I've heard of mixing ingredients before but shouldn't you use a fork instead?" Alex asked sarcastically making his presence known for the first time. He crossed his arms over his bare chest and leaned against the door post with a raised eyebrow.

Max looked up to see the beginning of a smirk on Alex's face and it irritated him even more than he already was. "This isn't funny. I have…" Max looked down at his watch. "…ten minutes to make the best damn sniffums and kacnaps I've ever made or there's going to be one very broken hearted Princess who will never believe in the Walla-Walla Fairy again."

Alex stared at Max blankly then turned to leave the room without another word. "Hey, where are you going?" Max called out to him before Alex took more than two steps.

Alex turned back around and pointed his thumb in the direction of the bedroom. "Back to bed. After that statement, I'm either still dreaming or I've awakened in a parallel universe where they've snatched the real you and things are not as they seem. Either way, it's better for me to go back to bed and start all over again."

Alex rubbed his eyes and stretched with a yawn before turning once more to leave when he saw Max slump to the floor and stare at the mixed ingredients before him his eyes downcast and the expression on his face suddenly very serious. Alex stopped and silently observed Max for a moment before taking a step into the kitchen and sliding to the floor with his back against one of the cupboards. "What is it, Max?"

Max shook his head. "I can't do this, Alex."

"Do what?"

"Be who they want me to be."

Alex's eyes narrowed as he calmly asked a question knowing the answer before it was spoken.
"They who?"

"Jaedan…Angel." Max let out a sigh as he ran his fingers through his hair as his voice softened. "Liz."

"And who is that?"

Max shrugged. "Jaedan's looking for her Mr. Prince Charming. Angel's looking for someone to rescue Liz from God only knows what. And Liz…" Max's jaw twitched with emotion before he continued his thought. "…she needs someone she can trust. Someone she can feel safe with."

Guessing where Max's thoughts had been and where they were leading him, Alex asked the next logical question. "You've been thinking about last night, haven't you?"

Max nodded silently then got up to look for a dishcloth as Alex pursed his lips in thought. Breaking the silence, Alex's quiet comment made connections Max hadn't been willing to make on his own. "You think she's in danger because of you."

Max dropped back down to the floor and began cleaning the mess he'd made in silence. "Max?" Alex called to him. "That's it, isn't it? You think that person we saw wouldn't have been in Liz's cottage if it hadn't been for you." Still receiving no answer Alex continued leaned forward in earnest. "Don't you see how ridiculous that is? Max, come on. As egotistical as you can be at times even you know the world does not revolve around you." Alex added flippantly trying to pull Max out of his silence.

It worked. Max looked up at Alex sharply. "This has nothing to do with my ego or sense of importance, Alex! It has to do with the fact we found bugs in this cottage last night after seeing an intruder leaving Liz's place. You can't tell me you don't see some kind of connection." Max replied hotly.

"I don't." Alex attempted to convince Max, but even he had a hard time lying to a man who used to be his partner and was still one of his best friends. Seeing the unconvinced look in Max's warm chestnut eyes as he tilted his head in disbelief, Alex shifted uncomfortably in his seat on the floor and shrugged in concession. "Ok, so maybe there might be a connection. But even if there is it doesn't mean any of this is your fault…"

"Gee, where have I heard that one before?" Max asked sarcastically as he finished wiping the floor and got up to toss the bowl in the sink with a thud. Silence filled the room as Max put his hands on the side of the sink and lowered his head with a long sigh. "I can't live through it again, Alex. That guilt…"

Before Alex got a chance to answer there was a knock on the door. Max let out a sigh and quickly wiped his eyes hoping Alex hadn't seen the tears that had unexpectedly threatened to fall. "I'll get it. That's probably Jaedan looking for her Prince.” Max tossed Alex a wayward robe that had landed on the couch earlier and made a teasing comment trying to lighten the mood before moving to the door. "Throw that on. I don't want to traumatize her for life."

Max took a deep breath and forced a smile on his face before opening the door and greeting his small visitor. "Hey there, Princess. How are you this morning?"

Jaedan stood before the door twisting her little body back and forth as she hugged her precious Boo-Boo Bear close to her. Her face lit up with a bright smile when the door opened and Max knelt to greet her. "Hi, Mr. Prince Charming! Boo-Boo Bear and I came to see if the Walla-Walla Fairy left his sniffums and kacnaps with you!"

"Uh…well…" Max began but was interrupted by the sound of someone coming up the path toward his door. Max looked up to see Angel descending on them like a storm.

"Jaedan!" Angel's voice cut through the silence as she quickly stepped up to the cottage and turned Jaedan toward her. "What do you think you're doing? You scared me to death when I went looking for you and you were gone. You're always supposed to tell Grandnanny where you're going, honey. You know that. And what are you doing here? You know you're not allowed to bother the guests here at the inn..."

Jaedan's eyes began to fill with tears and her lower lip began to quiver as she hugged Boo-Boo Bear close to her. "I just wanna see if the Walla-Walla Fairy left the sniffums and kacnaps with Mr. Prince Charming. I didn't mean no harm."

Max's heart broke at the way Jaedan's small voice began to quiver. His eyes met Angel's as she glanced down at him and he gave her a shrug and a guilty grin. Jaedan was in trouble for no other reason than Max's fanciful tale from the night before. What was worse, he had no treats to offer Jaedan and by the look on her face Angel knew it. Best thing to do was to come clean.

"Uh, Princess…" Max began as he gently turned Jaedan around toward him. "The Walla-Walla Fairy didn't leave the sniffums and kacnaps…"

"With Max." Angel finished for him. "And the Fairy didn't leave them with me. He did come and give us special instructions though." Angel added as she exchanged a knowing look with Max and showed him the apron and bag of ingredients she'd hidden behind her back.

Max's eyes lit up immediately. "Yeah, that's right. He did. He came to me last night and asked me to do something really, really special for you. He said that since you were such a good girl, he wanted to give you an extra special treat." Max lowered his voice to a whisper. "The Walla-Walla Fairy wants us to make them together. He even gave me the recipe…"

Jaedan's eyes moved from Max's face to an object just beyond him and her mouth dropped open in complete surprise as her eyes widened in delight. "Oh, Mr. Prince Charming! You got the Walla-Walla Fairy to come make sniffums and kacnaps with us!" Jaedan exclaimed as she moved past Max almost knocking him down in her rush to get to her very own Walla-Walla Fairy.

Running up to Alex Jaedan exclaimed excitedly. "Mr. Fairy!! I'm so glad you could come! We're gonna have tons of fun making sniffums and kacnaps! And when we get done maybe we can play dress up dollie!! Oh, and I brushed my teeths ever so good this mornin'." She turned her face up to him and let loose a toothy smile to show Alex her teeth. "See? My teeths are almost as white and pretty as yours!"

Max nearly burst into laughter at the stunned, confused look on Alex's face at Jaedan's uninhibited comments. Alex stood with his arms crossed in front of him looking from Jaedan's radiant face to Max's trying to figure out what in the world had just happened and how exactly he should address this little girl who so obviously believed he was a real live fairy.

"Uh…well…uh…." Alex stuttered for a few moments before shooting Max a look of sheer desperation.

Max finally decided to 'rescue' his friend as he came up behind Jaedan and put his hand on the top of her head. Giving Alex a mischievous wink he readily picked up where Jaedan left off. "That's right, Princess. The Walla-Walla Fairy's here to help us make those snacks. I'll bet if you ask real nice, he might even wear this frilly pink apron Grandnanny brought with her." Max added as he held the apron up to Alex receiving a 'you-wouldn't-dare' look from Alex.

"YEAH!!!" Jaedan jumped up and down at Max's suggestion and turned to rush back to Angel who was standing at the door taking in the whole scene with a great amount of amusement. So this was the Alex that Sheila had been talking about. It looked like he and Max were good friends. In fact, Angel bet she'd get to see just how good of a friend he was to Max if he actually went along with this little scheme of theirs…

Alex grabbed the apron from Max and held it up to him in mild irritation and disbelief. "Not on your life..." Tossing it back in Max's face, he placed his hands on his hips and glared at Max while Jaedan went to grab Angel's hand and pull her into the cottage. "Mr. Prince Charming, my as…" Alex leaned forward and hissed sarcastically as his eyes swept over Max with mock disgust.

"Hey, watch it. There are little ears present." Max reminded Alex with an upraised warning eyebrow.

"..teroid." Alex finished weakly but loudly as his gaze flicked to Jaedan when she rushed back up to him.

Max chuckled at Alex's quick save, lame though it may have been. Clearing his throat, Max lowered his voice as his eyebrow raised. "And you will do it, because I know that you really don't want to be the one to make those beautiful dark eyes puddle with tears. Do you?"

Turning to Jaedan Max swept her up into his arms, threw the apron back over Alex's shoulder with a slight pat and headed toward the kitchen. "Come on, sweetie. Let's get ready for the great, the magnificent, the awesomest Walla-Wall Fairy-man..." Max's sentenced trailed off as he and Jaedan disappeared into the kitchen.

Alex rolled his eyes and shook his head before turning to Angel. "I have no idea what I've just walked into, have I?" He whispered as apprehension instantly filled his eyes.

Angel shook her head as she answered. "I'm afraid not."

"What am I supposed to do now?"

Angel pointed to the apron still perched on Alex's shoulder. "Get used to frilly pink...really fast."

Just then Jaedan stuck her dark head back into the living room and called out sweetly. "Come on, Mr. Fairy! Let's have some fun!!"

Angel chuckled as Alex rolled his eyes and shook his head with a sigh. Yep. He knew it. Parallel universe. He really should have gone back to bed earlier when he had the chance...
~~~~~~~~~~~
Laughter filled the kitchen as Jaedan, Max, Alex and Angel ate their fill of the 'sniffums' and 'kacnaps' that Max and Alex whipped up with Angel's subtle coaching. With her silently raised eyebrows and the slight shakes of her head, they had managed to create a breakfast filled with all the magic little Jaedan's heart desired.

Angel had always enjoyed watching the interaction between a man and a young child, especially a little girl. There was something about a little girl that could make strong, tough grown men either wither in fear or turn to mush. Mush was exactly what Max and Alex had become.

Alex had donned the frilly pink apron stating with clarity and determination that Jaedan should feel very honored because the Walla-Wally Fairy doesn't do this for just anyone. In his most authentic Australian accent, which wasn't too authentic according to the smirk on Max's face and his raised eyebrow, Alex added that this was, in fact, more than a once in a lifetime occurrence...it was a once in an eternity event, never to be repeated again. He even continued the charade by pretending to be offended when Jaedan said the kacnaps looked 'just like Grandnanny's pancakes' to which Max quickly came up with some wild explanation for the similarity.

As far as mush went, Max was just as bad as Alex if not worse. He'd amused them all by making up grand stories about the Walla-Walla Fairy and his many exploits while delivering sniffums and kacnaps to deserving children around the world, many to the detriment of his friend's reputation. To make things extra special for Jaedan, Max had even gone as far as to add his own special 'magic dust' when he unexpectedly found powdered sugar in the cupboard.

They were all having such a good time that none of them noticed the willowy figure that unexpectedly appeared in the kitchen doorway until she spoke. "Well, if I'd known there was going to be a party, I would have brought the wine...or should I say the milk?"
~~~~~~~~~~~
Duke rolled over and snatched up the phone in irritation. "Yes." He stated groggily unprepared for the voice on the other end.

"And what have ye found out? When will it be happenin'?" The Irish toned voice asked urgently into the phone.

Duke's eyes slowly opened as he groaned. "Colin, do you have any idea what time it is here?"

"Aye. But the time here is what I'm worryin' aboot." Colin stated with no thought or regrets of the sleep he was causing Duke to lose. "The boys are anxious to know what ye've done about Max."

Duke sighed and pulled himself into a sitting position. "I'm working on it."

"Just workin' on it?" Colin's voice raised in agitation. "And why don't ye have it done yet?"

"Colin, you've obviously heard of Max Evans or else you wouldn't have contacted me to enlist his…services. But knowing him by reputation and understanding his character are two different things. So, let me explain something about Mr. Evans to you. He isn't easily manipulated or cajoled into doing anything he doesn't believe in. Trust me, he won't believe in what you want him to do. So, he needs to be handled…very carefully…or we may end up making him our enemy instead of our ally. And believe me, having Max as an enemy is simply a state you don't want to be in."

"What do ye plan to do then?"

"I plan to watch him and wait till his strongest weakness is exposed. Then we'll approach him for his assistance. If he refuses, we'll head straight for his Achilles Heel and bend it until he's begging to offer his services, money and anything else we may ask of him." Duke explained as casually as if he were ordering breakfast.

"How long do ye think it'll be takin'?" Colin asked not sure if Duke's words had calmed his fears or made him more anxious.

"However long it takes." Duke stated with finality. "Look, you want the best, sometimes you have to wait for it. Now, I have someone working on it as we speak. She's the best there is. As soon as I hear from her, I'll get back with you and let you know where we stand. Until then…tell the boys to relax and do what you do best…nurse your anger with a good glass of ale and don't forget to toast to Old Erin for me."

Duke hung the phone up, his lips sealed in a grim line. He reached over and picked up the picture he always kept by his beside. Looking down at the beautiful face that stared up at him, Duke traced the outline of her cheek to her jaw. "I'm counting on you, McKenna. Don't let your past with Max screw this up for us. There'll be hell to pay if you do…"
~~~~~~~~~~~~
Liz glanced at her schedule book and sighed. It was too empty. Not that she didn't have appointments. She did. Practically back to back. Which was a good thing...except the 'practically' part. In those moments of silence she'd be thinking of 'him'. She knew she would. Why would those 15 minutes or half hours between meetings be any different than the sleepless hours spent the night before?

She'd played over and over in her mind the scene she'd come upon heading back to Max's cottage the night before...Max in Tess' arms. Her stomach knotted up once again at the thought of it and Liz tossed her pen in frustration on the desk. For what seemed like the hundredth time that morning Liz reached into her top right drawer and pulled out the People magazine with the large picture of Max and Tess descending the steps of a grand mansion hand in hand.
Flipping to an article she could practically quote by now, Liz began reading once again that…

"Water and Oil Do Mix"

"He loves to play in the ocean. She loves to buy paintings of the ocean. He raids corporations for a living. She raids old antique shops and art galleries looking for undiscovered art treasures. He loves money. She is money. With his striking good looks and her graceful beauty could there be a more perfect match made in the world?"

Liz closed the magazine with a sigh. "Yeah. Just perfect…"

A knock on the door caused Liz to jump slightly then quickly toss the magazine back in her drawer. V opened the door and stuck her head in when Liz called out an invitation to come in. "Sorry to bother you so early, but Grace is here to see you."

"Grace?" Liz's eyebrow lifted in surprise. "How does she look?"

"Well, she's wearing sunglasses soooo…"

Liz nodded. "Send her in and can you call Mrs. Wagner and change my appointment with her please? Sometime…this afternoon, I think would be good. Oh, and can you take Grace to Room 2? Thanks, V." Liz sighed once more once the door was closed. "Well, Max. Looks like I get a reprieve from thinking about you…for a while."

A few moments later V led Grace to the room where Liz waited to greet her. Liz smiled and held out her hand. "Hi, Grace. Come on in. Have a seat."

McKenna slide into the seat Liz indicated and took her glasses off revealing what Liz suspected she'd find…a black eye. McKenna winced convincingly eliciting a sympathetic look from Liz. "Thanks for seeing me on such short notice…"

Liz nodded and reached for the box of tissues she knew would be needed just by the way Grace's eyes were already beginning to tear up. "That's no problem, Grace. Do you want to tell me what happened?"

McKenna dabbed her eyes daintily and looked down at the floor pouring as much sincerity in her words as possible. No matter what Duke said, she needed a clearer picture of Max and Liz's relationship as soon as possible and that was what this little session would be all about. "The night started out so perfect, you know? Larry came home with a dozen roses and a bottle of wine. We had dinner and began to dance. It was just like old times..."

McKenna leaned back in the chair and allowed her mind to momentarily drift to nights long ago. She told herself it was necessary to play her part convincingly, but the truth was those memories of sharp amber eyes filled with desire…eyes she should by all rights never look into again…were the only thing that brought necessary, reality of tears to her own eyes.

Her voice became dreamy with visions only she could see while she eyed Liz's reaction with a sidelong glance. "It felt so right…the way he held me. And his kiss…it took the breath right out of me. His caresses…something told me he was going to take me higher than I'd ever been…"

Liz tried to shake her head clear of the images Grace's words had conjured in her mind but they just wouldn't leave her. The way Max always managed to look down into her eyes…as if she were the only woman in the world that could make his eyes sparkle with laughter, soften with emotion and glow with desire all at the same time. How her body would shiver involuntarily every time Max ran his finger across her skin…

Liz took a deep breath and leaned forward forcing herself to focus on how the evening Grace was describing could end with the physical evidence of his abuse she saw right in front of her eyes instead of the chestnut eyes that haunted her dreams at night. "So, what happened?"

McKenna slowly lowered her eyes and shrugged knowing her words were affecting Liz. "I don't really know. The phone started to ring and the next thing I knew his anger flared and he yanked the cord out of the wall. Said that I should have known better than to leave the phone plugged in on such an important night. And then, well…here I am."

"Yes, you are. May I ask why?" Liz asked suddenly as she clasped her hands in front of her.
"Why are you here instead of down at the police station or on your way to packing your things? Grace, you know if you go back to him this is going to happen again. No matter how sorry he is or how many promises he makes to never do it again…"

"You have no idea what it's like. To love someone so much. To feel so much with just a gentle touch. When it's good, it is so good…"

"And when it's bad? What about those times, Grace? Are they really worth the danger you're in by staying with Larry?"

McKenna got up from the chair in feigned agitation playing the part of isolated victim to the hilt. "Let me ask you a question. You're dating that Graham guy, right? That good-looking heir. Do you love him?"

Liz blinked at the suddenness of Grace's question then answered in a quiet voice. Taken off guard, she answered automatically, breaking her own rule not to reveal too much personal information to a client. "Of…of course I love him."

"Do you feel as if you'd just die if he weren't in your life? That you simply wouldn't be able to live if you couldn't feel him touching you? That you'd do anything to keep him…" McKenna paused to gauge Liz's reaction and knew immediately she'd hit a nerve by the way Liz's eyes faltered and remained fixed on the notepad in her lap.

Liz cleared her throat before answering as honestly as she could in an effort to show Grace the difference between love and obsession. "My relationship with Sean isn't like that. I love him, but I'm not obsessed with pleasing him. I don't excuse inexcusable actions just so that I can keep him by my side. We are two individuals who make a partnership. He's one of my best friends, Grace. If he weren't in my life, I'd certainly feel a loss. I'd miss him terribly, but I'd be able to live…"

"Really?" McKenna's voice was tainted with scorn as she continued to bait Liz in her quest for information. "Then you don't know what love is. You don't know what it's like to have his kisses take you higher than you've ever been or melt with his touch. So tell me. What do you know about what I'm going through then anyway? You've never known the kind of love Larry and I share…we're like fire that can never burn out. It just so happens it also gets out of control sometimes."

Liz watched as Grace moved around the room. She'd seen this before. The part where feeling you're the only person in the world who experiences this actually gives you comfort instead of a sense of loneliness. The part where they convince themselves they have something better than everyone else. There was really only one way to deal with it…agree with her. "You know, you're right, Grace. I don't know the kind of relationship you and Larry share."

"Oh really?" The sarcasm flowing through McKenna's voice was so thick she had to swallow hard just to dislodge the lump of jealousy that was stuck in her throat. "Please. Do tell."

Taking a deep breath Liz did something she rarely did while counseling a client…she allowed Grace into her private world of thoughts. Thoughts that immediately led her to Max.

"Actually, there is someone…" Liz paused as her eyes took on a dreamy quality that McKenna recognized all too well. "I do know what it's like to…melt with a touch…as you put it. Or feel my knees go weak when his smile lights the room. And the way he touches me…he speaks to my soul somehow."

Liz stopped herself from continuing as her eyes flickered with determination. "I also know that while I was gazing into that man's eyes I instinctively felt that if I allow him into my world it could possibly be the most dangerous move I could ever make for myself. So, I've chosen not to let him."

Liz leaned forward once more, her voice steady once more and her eyes trained on Grace's face. "And you must learn to do the same. What good is the fire you and Larry have together if it obviously burns you every time you get too close? You have to determine if going higher than you've ever been is worth the pain of crashing to the ground when he drops you. You can't love if you're not alive, Grace. I'm just afraid if you don't make some drastic changes soon, he'll go too far one day…and your chance to make the decision to stay or live will be gone…"

Fifteen minutes later Liz closed the door behind Grace feeling she'd actually made progress with her even though she felt like a complete hypocrite now that the door was closed and she was once more alone with her thoughts of Max. McKenna, on the other hand, left knowing Liz had fallen for Max despite all of her talk to the contrary. Oh, she was fighting it alright, but fallen was definitely Mrs. Liz Santoro's condition at the moment.

Now McKenna just needed two things…to determine just exactly how 'fallen' Max was and to figure out the best way to use this newly developing relationship without letting it get too serious. McKenna shook her head at the impossible and pulled out her cell phone to make a call.

"It's me. I need a favor." McKenna whispered into the phone glancing around to make sure she was alone. "I need a hit. Not a fatal one….just one to put a little scare into someone. Think you can do it? Great. Here's the plan…"
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
"Tess." Max said as he looked up in surprise at the voice that greeted them at the doorway. "I…I had no idea…"

"That I'd show up so early this morning?" Tess finished for Max. A graceful shrug of her shoulders and she continued without missing a beat. "Well, of course, you didn't, dear. But honestly, how else was I going to make sure your every second is monopolized by me today? By the way, good morning, darling." Tess' grin was almost catlike. She sashayed her way into the kitchen and snaked her arm around Max's waist as he stood to greet her then pulled his lips down on to hers without ceremony or shame. She was a woman on a mission…to get Max…and she didn't care who knew it.

Max pulled away from Tess and glanced around uncomfortably catching Angel's raised eyebrow, the roll of Alex's eyes and the look that passed between the two. Even those indications of the group's immediate dislike of Tess didn't prepare Max for what happened next.

Jaedan's eyes were as large as saucers when Max's gaze came to rest on her and her bottom lip was pushed out in a cute little pout. She turned to Angel and loudly announced her displeasure. "Grandnanny? How come that woman slobbered on Mr. Prince Charming? He said he didn't have no Princess yet."

"Jaedan!" Angel exclaimed as she tried to stop the grin she felt from spreading over her lips. What was that saying? Out of the mouths of babes…

"What?" Jaedan picked up her Boo-Boo Bear and hugged it close to her. "She's not a good princess for Mr. Prince Charming…" Turning to Max, Jaedan's large brown were full of confusion and hurt. "Mr. Prince Charming? How come? I thought I was gonna help you find your princess."

Max tilted his head to the side and shook it slightly as a smile came to his lips. He sat back down in his seat next to Jaedan and smoothed her hair away from her face. Oh, how he was beginning to love the innocence of a child that gave him the avenue to be bluntly honest. "Oh, sweetie, you are going to help me. You and the stars, remember? Tess here is my friend."

Jaedan's eyes flicked from his face back to Tess who was standing between Max and Alex's chairs and must not have liked what she saw. She leaned forward and lowered her voice to what she thought was a whisper unaware that ever adult in the room could still hear her tiny voice. "But …she wants ta be your Princess or else she wouldn'ta slobbered like that. And I've already got just the one picked out for you…"

"Jaedan, honey, that's enough." Angel stated with authority. There was no point in making
Max's 'friend' uncomfortable regardless of the situation she'd put herself into. From what Angel could tell on first impressions Liz had been right about Tess…and wrong about Max. She was no more his girlfriend than Alex was the Walla-Walla Fairy.

Turning to Tess Angel held out her hand. "Angel. I'm sorry about that. You know how children can be sometimes with their ides of fairy tales and such…"

"Tess Harding. And actually, no. I do my best to avoid them." Tess responded with a cold, slight shake of Angel's hand. Her disapproving gaze moved to Jaedan's small face before turning to Alex with a plastic smile as she ran a flirtatious hand across his shoulders and turned on the charm.

It was obvious she knew where her competition for Max's time and attention lay and decided to start working the one she'd have the most chance to disarm. "Good morning, Alex. It's so good to see you again. I trust you and Max finished your plans satisfactorily last night."

Alex smiled up at Tess not displeased with her attention. She was, after all, a beautiful woman and Alex was far from being immune to beautiful women the way Max seemed to be. Then again, he didn't have his focus clouded by anyone in particular at the moment...unlike Max... "Yes, we did, Tess. We had a great time getting re-acquainted. It's been quite a while…"

"Great!" Tess interrupted him rudely while flashing Max a pearly white smile. "That means you're free today to show me around and explain to me exactly what you're doing in this one-horse town, Max."

Max shot Alex a 'gee-thanks-look-what-you've-gotten-me-into-now' look that quickly turned to one of desperation as the wheels in his head began to turn. "Well, actually…I had planned…" Max's gaze moved from Alex to Angel to finally rest on Jaedan as he searched for a valid reason to put Tess off for a little while longer.

Max's eyes faltered and he momentarily seemed at a loss. Angel sensed his discomfort and jumped in with a suggestion. "Wasn't there a mistake you made yesterday that you needed to correct today?"

Max's face brightened with a smile as he quickly picked up on Angel's idea. "Yes, there is." He turned back to Tess with new determination in his eyes now that he had a valid reason to foil her plans for the day. "I'm sorry, Tess, but Angel's right. I made a terrible mess of a situation yesterday and I really need to work on fixing it today.

Tess' eyebrow shot up and she looked at Angel with a certain amount of disdain while her voice maintained an almost uninterested curiosity. She cared less about what Max was really going to do and more about the vague generalities of his statements. "Really. Anything I can do to help?"

"Actually, no. I need Alex's help for this particular situation…"

A sly grin spread over Alex's lips and his blue eyes danced with plans of his own. He figured this little 'situation' had an awful lot to do with Liz Parker and Tess wouldn't like it one bit if she knew. Although Max was one of Alex's best friends that didn't mean he didn't like to watch him suffer a little. Especially when it might prove to be so much fun watching Max try to juggle all of the women in his life. "Yeah, that's right. I'll be going along too. Max here made me a promise to take me to his favorite attraction in town and I intend to make him keep that promise."

Seeing the faint blush on Max's cheeks at Alex's words and the unspoken messages sent between the two men, Tess threw in a comment hoping to ascertain just what this 'favorite attraction' was. "Well, I certainly hope she's not more attractive than me…"

Jumping in to rescue Max once more Angel offered an alternative plan. "You know, Tess, you might consider spending some time at one of out local spas to kill a few hours while Max is busy. I can recommend a place…"

Tess dismissed Angel's suggestion with a wave of her well-manicured hand. "Nonsense. I just had a beauty day at Elizabeth Arden's before coming down. I wanted to look my best for my Max here...even though he hasn't been very appreciative of all my efforts so far." She added with a slight pout.

"Now, Tess, I've never known you to need constant affirmation of your beauty." Max stated smoothly with a forced smile that never quite reached his eyes. "As for your other efforts, I'm just thrilled you're here. Surprised...but thrilled."

"Well, you certainly could show a little more enthusiasm..." Tess started to scold Max when Alex broke in.

"That's Max. Dull as an unsharpened lead pencil." Alex commented as his eyes took on a teasing glint. "Not to mention, he never did know how to appreciate what was right in front of him. Me, on the other hand..."

"You on the other hand?" Tess prompted as she leaned toward Alex and gave him a flirtatious look while gauging Max's reaction from the corner of her eye.

"I know a good thing when I see it." Alex commented while allowing his gaze to sweep over Tess' slim form. "And may I say, from where I sit things are looking mighty good."

"Maaax." Tess practically purred. "I like your Alex. He knows how to make a girl feel wanted."

"Well then, perhaps the two of you should tour good old New Haven together.” Max suggested with a mischievous gleam in his eyes. "In fact, now that I think about it, I really don't need Alex's help as much as I thought I did. I'm sure I can handle my little situation on my ow…"

"Whoa, there, Max." Alex jumped in with an almost panicked tone of voice. By the look in Max's eyes, Alex saw his chance to meet Liz fading quickly if he agreed to this plan. If there was one thing he knew in this whole mixed up mess it was that he hadn't come all this way to not meet the girl whose voice had sung him to sleep at nights. "Let's not be hasty about this. From what you told me, this is a pretty big deal. If you don't get it just right…it could blow up in your face."

Max put his forefinger up to his chin as if he were trying to decide the difference between life and death. What he was really trying to decide was how best to make things right with Liz and the children for his outburst the day before. His eyes lighting up with an idea, Max pretend to finally come to a decision, tilting his head and giving Tess an apologetic look. "I'm sorry, Tess, but Alex's right. This…thing I have to do. Well, it has be handled just right or else it could come back and bite me. Please understand. Really big business deal. It's something I really do need to do…"

Realizing by the determination in Max's eyes that she truly had lost this battle, Tess shrugged and let out a sigh. She once more ran her hand possessively over his shoulder. "Well, then I guess I'll just go hunt for new talent on my own. Speaking of which...tell me darling, who is the artist of those paintings in the front room? I meant to ask you last night but didn't get a chance before you so rudely pushed me out your door."

At the mention of the painting, Max shot Alex a look that didn't go unnoticed by Angel. Alex's reaction was instantaneous as well. He sat up straight in his chair as his eyes widened slightly. If Angel hadn't guessed it before she knew now that Alex was the very same agent that Sheila had spoken to a few short days ago. From the looks that were exchanged between he and Max, they had discovered more to Liz's story than Sheila had offered. The key now would be to find out just how much they knew…

Hearing Tess' question about Liz's painting sent Max into a mini-tailspin. The last thing he wanted to do was spend the day with Tess…especially when he could be spending the time making things up to Liz.

On the other hand, Tess was tenacious when it came to art. Once she found something she wanted she wouldn't back down on getting it. If information on Liz's paintings were what she was looking for, she'd find a way to get that information…or bribe someone trying. Max had to make sure her attention was diverted or else she might discover more than Liz's secrecy would allow.

Besides, he was due for a little distraction himself. He'd been spending way too much time analyzing his relationship with Liz and if he should proceed or desist. Maybe having Tess around wasn't such a bad thing after all. With the way she demanded all of his attention, he was certain to not even have time to think about Liz…as much. Well, there was only one thing to do…

Max shrugged casually. "You know, Tess, I haven't the faintest idea. In fact, I'm not even sure what painting you're talking about." Max thought he lied rather convincingly considering the way his heart was beating a mile a minute. They couldn't risk Tess getting a whiff of Liz's existence. She would stop at nothing to bring Liz's brilliance into the spotlight and that was a chance they simply couldn't take.

"Really? That's odd seeing how you're such an art buff yourself. It's extraordinary really. You should take a moment to look at it. There's something...familiar about it's style that I can't quite put my finger on..."

Jaedan tugged on Max's shirt sleeve and announced loudly. "She means Ken..."

"Jaedan! Look at the mess you've made on your plate." Angel interrupted the instant she understood where Jaedan's mind was taking her and grabbing onto anything that would stop her from saying any more.

Max's head shot up when he realized how close Jaedan had come to letting the identity of Angel's 'mystery' painter out of the bag. His eyes locked with Angel's and instantly they both understood each other. Angel now knew beyond a doubt that Max knew Liz was the artist he'd been asking about and Max now knew that Angel knew.

Jaedan looked back and forth between Max and Angel forgetting all about Kendall's paintings and now focusing on her own. "But...I's just trying to make sticky faces..."

Max leaned over and kissed Jaedan on the top of her head giving her a short squeeze around her shoulders while he looked at the masterpiece she'd created at the bottom of her plate with syrup. "Wow, Princess! That's beautiful!" He exclaimed turning Jaedan's frown into a pretty smile. "And you know what's best about it?"

"Uh-huh..." Jaedan nodded her head in excitement as she held up her finger before thrusting it down onto the plate and swiping up a glob of syrup. "It's finger lickin' good!"

Max, Angel and Alex burst into laughter at the way Jaedan stuck her finger in her mouth and slurped up the syrup before it dripped down her hand while Tess stood outside the merriment with an air of aloofness. Max stuck his finger in his own plate and licked up the syrup with a grin. "You're right, Princess. It is finger lickin' good!"

Feeling somewhat left out of the scene before her, Tess spoke up to remind Max and everyone else that she was still present. "How...sweet." Tess commented rather dryly. "Max, what about the painting in the living room? Are you sure you don't know who the artist is?" Tess persisted.

Max let out a short, uneasy chuckle as his eyes locked with Alex's. He'd hoped the little distraction with Jaedan and her sticky faces would have erased the painting from Tess's mind, but such luck was not to be. "You've seen so many artists, I'm sure they're just all beginning to run together for you. In fact, all this talk of painting has suddenly put me in the hunting mood as well. In fact it's about time I update my collection." Max slipped his arm around Tess' waist and gave her a disarming smile. "Let's say you and I go talent shopping together."

Tess' eyebrows lifted in pleased surprise. "I'd love nothing better, but…what about your
problem you have to handle?"

Max shrugged as he got up from the table and grabbed a notepad and pen from the counter. "I'll just give Alex a list of things to get and he and I can meet up this afternoon. How does that sound to everyone?"

"That sounds perfect." Tess beamed while Alex chimed in that it sounded like a good plan to him as well.

Max concentrated a moment on his list before tearing off the piece of paper and handing it to Alex. "I'll call you in a while to see how it's coming." Max went back to the table and drank down one last gulp of milk before making final plans with Alex on when to meet. "How about noon? Angel can give you directions..."

"Mr. Prince Charming?" Jaedan ask as she turned her dark eyes on him.

"Yeah, sweetie?" Max slipped back into his seat next to Jaedan and leaned toward her.

Jaedan took one of his large hands in both her tiny ones as she smiled up at him. "Thank you so much for my sniffums and kacnaps! And thank you for bringing the Walla-Walla Fairy to see me! And thank you for the best b'akfast ever! And...and..." Jaedan's voice broke off as she threw herself into Max's arms and wrapped her arms around his neck before whispering in his ear. "...thanks for being my friend."

Max slipped an arm around Jaedan and pulled her close with a smile as his eyes began to twinkle. "No, sweetie. Thank you...for being my number one Princess..."

Only Alex noticed the unshed tear in the corner of Max's eye as he pulled away, said his good-byes and headed out the door with Tess. Perhaps that was best...only Alex could understand why.

After Max had walked out the door Jaedan announced she was going to call Kendall to let her know about her greatest breakfast ever and left Alex and Angel alone in the silence of the kitchen.

Alex glanced over the list of things Max had given him and shook his head with a grin. So, that's what he was planning...

Angel broke the silence of the room. "Now that we're alone...why don't you and I get down to business?"

Alex looked up at Angel surprised by her business-like tone of voice. He leaned forward and locked eyes with her, his steady unwavering gaze matching her own. "Alright. Why don't you start?"

"You know about Kendall, don't you?"
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
"Not again..." Duke groaned at the sound of the phone. It obviously wasn't in the cards for him to get any sleep today. He reached over and picked it up on the third ring with a sigh. "What?"

"Have you checked on your girl lately?" A deep voice asked over the line.

Duke sat up immediately when he recognized the voice and blinked himself awake. "Wh...what do you mean?"

"I suggest you get to New Haven tonight and rein her in. She's planning a hit...on Liz."

"What?" Duke's eyes widened in shock. "You've got to be kidding me. I had no idea she would..."

"Go that far?" The voice asked. "What did you really expect...from a woman in love?"

to be continued....

posted on 21-Oct-2001 9:15:23 PM
~ chapter 22 ~

Alex stared at Angel contemplating the best way to answer her question. She was blunt if nothing else. But Alex had learned through years of covert activities that often the most frank people usually have the most to hide…and lose. He knew how high the stakes were for Liz. He suddenly wondered with her question just how Angel figured into those stakes and how much she knew of Liz's past...

Angel stared back scrutinizing Alex's expressionless face. He was good. Not a glimmer of understanding. Not a flicker of acknowledgement. This was a man she could count on in a pinch. That, she knew instinctively. But she wasn't in a pinch right now. In fact, if she played her cards right, she and Liz wouldn't be in a pinch for a while. It was time to find out how far Super-spy would go to help his friend...

"So? Are you going to start? Or shall I?" Angel asked casually as she leaned back in her chair.

Alex cracked a wry smile as he tilted his head never breaking eye contact. "Since you seem to know what you're talking about...why don't you go first?"

Angel shrugged purposefully keeping her tone and expressions light. "Ok. What has Max told you about Kendall?"

Alex pursed his lips. "If you're talking about Kendall Blake…" His appropriately nonchalant shrug was meant to reduce the importance of Liz in Max's life. "…he's mentioned her…once or twice."

Angel allowed a slight grin to touch her face when she recognized his evasive maneuver. "Ah, I see. A good friend who knows when to keep his mouth shut."

Her response brought a curl to Alex's lips. "What do you expect me to do? Bear my friend's heart to a stranger I don't know?" Alex shook his head. "No, something tells me you actually know a lot more about the Kendall-Max connection than I do."

Angel wagged her head from side to side in agreement. "You could say that. Especially since she's like the daughter I never had and he's been sharing a few of his frustrations with me."

"Frustrations, huh?" Alex's face split into a grin as he snapped his fingers and attempted to keep the conversation on the light side. "See,now…I knew he hadn't kissed her yet…"

Angel began to laugh not only at his comment but the fact that she'd thought the very same thing about Liz several times over the past few days. That just one kiss just might answer a few of those questions floating around in her brain. "That, I wouldn't know. But I would know that he seems rather crazy about her."

Leaning forward Angel locked eyes with Alex trying to determine by his reaction to her next leading statements if Max was the kind of man she thought he was when it came to love and the state of his heart. "Or is that just his style? Drop into a town, pick out the prettiest girl, charm the socks off her and then move on just before he falls himself?"

Alex's smile faded instantly and his eyes lowered from Angel's steady gaze as he shook his head slightly. "No. That' not his style. Especially not the falling part."

"I see." Angel continued her quest for knowledge. "But he has fallen, right? In the past. So hard he's decided to never hurt like that again. Instead he puts on the playboy costume when he's in public. Who knows? Maybe he even plays the part in private just so he can forget he has a heart."
Receiving no comment from Alex told Angel she was on the right track when it came to Max. So, she continued. "So, tell me. Who made him want to forget he can really love? And is Kendall the woman who is suddenly making him remember?"

Max hadn't told him much about his relationship with this B&B owner, but she was certainly pretty perceptive when it came to the state of his friend's romantic life. His fears and desires. The woman who was making him want it all and terrified of getting it all at the same time. It was like she'd been a fly on their wall…or a bug on Max's phone line. Alex's eyes narrowed in suspicion suddenly. "Who says he wants to forget?" Alex shot back ignoring her second question.

"The blonde bombshell that just drug him out of here." Angel nodded to the door where Max and Tess has just exited. "She's not his type…if he is the kind of man we both know him to be. So, call me crazy but his eagerness to be with her seemed to have less to do with her and more to do with Kendall."

Alex's eyes remained steadily fixed on Angel's as he contemplated his next move. Grinning suddenly, he leaned back in his chair before getting up from his seat and heading toward the coffee pot. "I don't know what you mean. Kendall's name wasn’t even mentioned."

"No…" Angel's eyes followed him as he grabbed the sugar, dumped a spoonful in his cup and stirred the black liquid. "But that doesn't mean she wasn't here. In fact, I got the feeling Max was trying to…protect her somehow."

Alex chuckled uncomfortably as he turned back around to face Angel. "Protect her? What possible danger could she be in?" He asked before taking a sip of coffee.

"For a woman with her past, the worst possible danger of all. The wrong man."
~~~~~~~~~~~
He'd only been with her for 30 minutes and he was already regretting his decision to spend the rest of the morning with her. In that 30 minutes, Max had already been 'darling-ed' and 'dear-ed' so much he felt his hands clench with each new 'd' word that came out of Tess' mouth.

It wasn't the terms as much as the tone with which she said them that made him cringe. They were spoken with the same condescending, patronizing intonation used by well-born high-society. The ones who exited their mother's womb expecting the world to bow at their feet and do their bidding with just a snap of their fingers.

With all of her efforts expended to giving the impression of intimacy between Max and herself, Tess was oblivious to the effect her attempts were having on him. His absent-minded distance and half-hearted interest to Tess was just 'a mood' he must be in.


Max kept glancing down at his watch literally counting the seconds down till he'd be released from this never-ending jaunt into Tess' romantic delirium. One more 'darling' and a hand slipped into his and Max suddenly found himself wondering what pet names Liz would call to him if she were by his side.

Honey. Definitely a Liz endearment. An unconsciously dreamy smile shot straight to Max's softening eyes when a memory hit him full force. "Honey, are you alright?" His smile deepened. He could practically hear her gentle purr. "Honey, stop. You're hogging the covers…" Or maybe even a seductive whisper accompanied by a wandering hand… "Anything I can do to make your side of the bed more comfortable, honey?" Yeah…yeah, that definitely sounded right.

Maybe she'd use 'sweetie'. "Aww, sweetie…you didn't have to buy me a new island for a special get-a-way spot. Our old one is just fine…" Max unconsciously bit back a chuckle at the thought of a sleepy-eyed, tousle-haired Liz stumbling into a living room full of stuffed wolves and Little Red Riding Hood dolls with one single white rose of surrender sitting on the mantel of the fireplace. Letting out a gasp of surprise before instantly honing in on his position by the fireplace, Liz would launch herself into his arms. A fierce hug and long, passionate kiss would follow suit before she'd pull back to look at him, eyes dancing to say, "Oh, sweetie…you remembered. After all this time you remembered our anniversary...the night I finally surrendered to you..."

Max let out an unconscious sigh. Oh, yeah. That would definitely be a sweet moment. The moment of surrender where both of them would win…

"Max, darling. Don't you agree?" Tess' voice broke through Max's silent thoughts and made him realize just how little he'd been paying attention to Tess' artistic ramble as he couldn't for the life of him tell her what her question had been.

"I'm sorry. I didn’t…"

Tess let out a sigh and pulled him toward her as she pointed to a painting hung on the wall. "I was saying…the brushstrokes…they're so vivid and bold. This would be one to add to your collection, don't you think?"

"Uh-huh." Max responded absently as his gaze became fixed on a masterpiece unlike he'd ever seen before. A masterpiece with no rival. One that called up in him emotions he'd long buried thinking he'd never see again. It's symmetry was perfection. As was the rich mixture of tones blended together to create an exotic and unmarred beauty. Her soft curvy frame was in direct contrast to the wild, untamable spirit that danced within her ebony eyes.

Max fought back the urge to rush to her and demand of her the key to her secret. The secret of how she could touch his soul without making a sound. Or even giving him a look. Just by suddenly appearing in the room, Liz lit up the dreary world around him and made time stand still in a way completely contrary to why it was dragging only moments before. With Liz he wanted to savor each moment for eternity.

Unaware of Max's admiring gaze, Liz stood toward the back of the art gallery and supply store looking up at a painting, her long dark hair falling down her back as she tilted her head to the side in scrutiny. Her dark chestnut eyes were glued to the images before her and Max longed to know the intricate thoughts of a genius as she looked upon another artist's work.

In truth, Liz's thoughts were no more complicated than wondering if she'd ever truly be able to capture the diverse colors and emotions of Max's eyes in her art. The array of autumn colors of the painting before her brought to mind once more the eyes that managed to dance through her dreams every night. The bright blue sky and changing leaves were a backdrop for half a dozen frolicking horses. One in particular caught her eye.

The sleek, shiny coat was the color of deepest chestnut, tinged with a hint of amber. Picking up the myriad of shades in its smooth side, the hot sun beating down on the scene created a glistening sheen of moisture as raw power rippled through its entire frame from taut, straining muscles. The stallion's full black mane flew back into the wind as it galloped recklessly through an open field, oblivious to the languid, carefree activities of the rest of the pack.

Power. Recklessness. Mystery. Freedom.

Words that not only described Max Evans…they enveloped him. Permeated the air around him. Arched like a rainbow in the air above him. Made Liz ache to live under that rainbow. Encompassed by his radiating heat.

Capturing the essence of Max Evans on canvass might be the only way to make those twinkling, haunting amber eyes of his to stop their pilgrimage through her mind. Liz let out a sigh. That is…if she wanted them to stop. Suddenly sensing that she was being watched, Liz turned slowly toward the front of the store and immediately locked eyes with the man who had held her thoughts captive only seconds before.

Their gaze held for what seemed like an eternity. Saying things across the air sizzling between them that neither had courage to say. Making them feel raw powerful emotions neither were ready to feel. A mirror of each other, their shared look conveyed so much. Too much. Regret and uncertainty. Desire to approach each other and hesitancy to fulfill that desire. Fear of rejection. Hope for acceptance.

Liz bit her lower lip and Max could see her chest rise with a deep breath. Then a foot moved forward hesitantly. Max took courage in her gesture and immediately began to move forward as well, a smile of hope beginning to shine in his dark eyes. A responding light flashed in Liz's only to be snuffed out a heartbeat later when Tess suddenly appeared at Max's side linking her arm through his and gazing up at him questioningly.

Pausing mid-stride, Liz's gaze flicked from Max to Tess than back again. She felt the proverbial punch in the stomach hit her full force and immediately extinguished whatever hope she had been feeling only moments before. Hope that she might be given a second chance to make things right. Hope that she and Max might have an actual chance to establish something more than the playful war that had built between them. Hope that opening herself to Max wouldn't lead to certain danger. Acceptance gripped her heart like a vise. How could it not lead to danger when one form of that danger was standing by his side?

Max's first clue that something had changed was not the feel of Tess' arm slipping through his. Or even the sound of her voice as she spoke his name. It was the smile in Liz's eyes that disappeared as quickly as it had been ignited. Replaced by a flash of jealousy…and a shiver of fear. The way her gaze shifted from him to a point at his side caused Max to turn his head, needing to see the thing that once more placed that wall in her eyes.

Tess.

Of all the times for Tess to show up. Of all the times for Liz to see them together. For her to assume what Tess had been trying so hard all morning to intimate. Max stifled a groan and instantly returned his gaze to Liz only to find her in conversation with a clerk from the gallery. She nodded absently and cast one last glance at Max and Tess through lowered eyelids before turning on her heels and following the man toward a door behind the counter. Her back as stiff as an iron rod. Her step, determined and steady.

Before Max could even think of making another move, Liz disappeared into the back taking along with her the light that had been dancing in his eyes since the moment he'd seen her. Pulling his arm quickly out of Tess' clingy embrace, Max took a step forward to follow then stopped short in defeat. What would be the point? Liz believed what she believed and with his track record for making her trust him, he knew the pursuit at this moment would be fruitless. No, there was only one way to handle this now. Get Tess on the next plane out of New Haven even if he had to hog tie her to one of the wings.

Then…go see Liz.

Tess noticed Max's distant silence and odd actions. First he looked like was ready to break into a run then the next, he was more firmly planted to the floor than a redwood in an ancient forest. Gazing up at him in contemplation, Tess' gaze drifted to the door that still held his attention. The door through which a petite brunette had vanished behind. Suddenly, Alex's earlier comment about Max's favorite attraction made a lot more sense. And Tess Harding didn't like the implications one bit…
~~~~~~~~~~~~
"The wrong man." Alex repeated as his eyes met Angel's. He couldn't quite tell if she was talking about Max at this point or a man…the man…from Liz's past.

"Yes. The wrong man." Angel repeated as she gauged Alex's reaction. Too bad he was so good at hiding his thoughts behind those sparkling blue eyes of his. Looks like she'd have to bait him a little more. "He's not the only one who wants to forget, you know."

Alex came back to the table and slid into his seat. "So, she's been hurt too?"

Angel nodded as she silently gazed into her cup wondering how much to reveal to this man before her. Liz would be furious if she knew she was even having this discussion. But what Liz didn't know couldn't hurt her. Besides, it wasn't like she was going to tell him the truth anyway. Not knowing him more than a brief morning. Even the Walla-Walla Fairy would have to prove himself before Angel would give away Liz's secrets. "Oh, it was a while ago but she's never quite gotten over it. A young man she knew from high school. She was very much in love with him. They were even going to get married and he just left her high and dry on the wedding day."

Alex hid the surprise of her false story with a shake of his head. For a moment he couldn't decide if Angel was just making it up or if she was simply repeating a story Liz had told her. That was until he saw the watchful hint of her eyes as she waited for his response. "That's terrible. No wonder she doesn't trust too easily."

Angel nodded again as she tried to gauge his reaction out of the corner of her eye. "Yeah, trust is a key ingredient for Kendall...in any relationship."

"It is for us all." Alex leaned forward and locked eyes with Angel. "That goes double for Max, by the way. Not to mention loyalty. He can survive without love, but...the trust and loyalty of a few close friends..." Alex shook his head slowly as seriousness edged his words. "...he'd die without them. Literally."

"Well, then. I guess Max and Kendall have more in common than we thought." Angel commented as she too leaned forward her unspoken message ringing out loud and clear to a man who knew enough scattered details of Liz's truth and all of Max's to pick up the significance of the statement.

"Yeah. I guess they do." Alex nodded with a slight smile realizing that a silent understanding had been reached between the two of them.

Regardless of future possibilities, the safety of Max and Liz's lives were their number one priority. Now that they both knew that, they'd both be on the look out for possible danger so Max and Liz could pursue their own hearts. Together or apart, they would do everything in their power to protect the two people most important to them. The two people who so deserved their shot at true love...
~~~~~~~~~~~
McKenna sat on the park bench gazing up at the few remaining leaves of the tree as they floated down to earth. She watched as children ran and played on the playground then moved her gaze back to the paper she held in her hands.

An old man slipped onto the bench seat next to her and pulled out a crumpled brown bag surrounding a whiskey bottle. Taking a sip, he released a sigh then put the cap back on the top. McKenna turned the page of her paper and raised it in front of her as if she were reading. "I see you got my message."

"I'm here ain't I?" The old man whispered as he leaned down and picked a leaf off the ground.

"I want it done tonight. I'll arrange to have them both down on the docks at 9:00. You'll be positioned behind the crates on the map. It should be a nice clean shot for you." McKenna turned another page and tilted her head as she appeared to read another article.

The old man coughed into his hand to cover his responding. "And the map?"

"In the bottle I'll leave when I get up. Along with half your fee." McKenna whispered back.
"Remember. This isn't to be fatal. And the man in definitely not your target. You harm a hair of his head and you'll not only not get the rest of your money, but you'll have to pay the consequences."

"Got it." The man responded before taking another drink. "One question. Is this some jealous lover thing or something?"

McKenna's jaw flinched at the term 'lover'. "It's none of your damn business. Just do your job and you'll live to see tomorrow." McKenna folded her paper then got up from the bench to walk quickly away.

The old man stared after her a moment as a sly grin spread over his lips. "Oh, yeah. Definitely jealous." He pulled out a small gray phone and hit speed dial. "Yeah. It's all set. Yeah, I know what to do. Where will the car be after the hit? Fine. See ya." He took one more sip of his tea from the whiskey bottle and sighed before picking up the bottle on the bench to prepare himself to hit and run...
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Noon came and went like a hurricane. The children, now fully fed, were settled back in their respective rooms. Liz smiled to herself as she closed her appointment book satisfied at all she'd been able to accomplish. The unexpected call from the gallery had provided the Center with a donation of paint brushes and paint for the kids and had already been a big hit in the early afternoon sessions.

Liz's mind drifted to her near run-in with Max and Tess earlier. She hadn't missed that moment. The one between her and Max. Where nothing else existed. Where all the world Liz could see was wrapped up in the impressive figure of Max Evans. A room away. But already deep inside her somehow. It was…amazing. That feeling. That pull. That overwhelming connection. It didn't require a touch. Or even a look. Though looking and touching was definitely a craving now.

Like a fire slowly building inside her, the more she saw of Max…the more she longed for him. The more she realized she really truly wouldn't be able to rest until she'd tasted him. Felt him. Breathed him into her. Just once. That's all it would take. Just one moment of reckless abandon and she could get him out of her system.

Couldn't she?

On the other hand, seeing Tess again had been like a bucket of ice cold water being thrown on the flames of desire. It was an event she could have easily foregone. Especially since cold is all she'd been feeling since leaving Max standing ensconced in Tess' arms.

Liz shuddered as the memory of way Tess possessively claimed Max without thinking. Without trying to make a point. It just came naturally. As if she'd been claiming him for a while now. Which made little instinctive sense to Liz. She just didn't see Tess as the kind of woman Max would truly fall for. Then again, she never did understand the way guys fell head over for Tess in boarding school. What made her think she'd understand it now? Especially with such a mind-boggling man as Max. She never quite knew what to expect from him...

The phone on Liz's desk buzzed and she reached over to hit the intercom button. "Yes?"

V's uncertain voice came over the line. "Uh...Kendall. I think there's something out here you need to see."

"V? Are you ok? You sound...I don't know...a bit weird."

"Yeah, well. You would too if you were looking at what I'm looking at. Please get out here. Quick."

Liz shot out of her seat to head around her desk and out the door. Turning the corner she entered the lobby of the center and stopped dead in her tracks. Her gaze moved from the cages on the floor to the two men whose eyes were suddenly fixed on her. The man standing in the background she'd never seen before. But the other...

Placing her hands on her hips, Liz's eyes flashed with fire as she locked eyes with his. "Max! Just what the hell do you think you're doing?"

Hearing Alex's snicker at his back, Max took a step forward and held up his hands as if to hold back the rush of Liz's fury. He'd hoped beyond hope for acquiescence, but knew Liz better than to expect anything less then resistance. "Now, Kendall, before you go off half-cocked just let me expl..."

"Get those...those...*creatures* out of here!" Liz exploded interrupting Max's caution as she pointed animatedly at the cages sitting behind Max on the floor. "I mean it, Max!! Get those out of here right this instant!!"

Max took a deep breath. "No." Max stated calmly as he instantly closed his eyes tightly and scrunched up his face preparing himself for...well, he wasn't quite sure what her reaction would be. Most likely thunderous. Probably even violent. Expecting to at least feel a slap in the face for his insolence, Max held his breath but was surprised when silence greeted his determined response. Opening one eye cautiously to see what he was missing, it's amber companion nstantly popped open at the scene before him...

Liz's eyes were dark with anger and determination. At the end of her extended arms firmly planted in her tiny hands was a shiny black...gun. Pointed directly...at him. Max gulped then looked back up into Liz's eyes as he shook his head, his own eyes widened in disbelief. "You've got to be kidding me. Good God, Kendall, I didn't mean for you to actually go off and cock a gun at me..."

"No, Max. You're the one who's kidding if you think I'm going to let you get close to those kids with those...those..." She once more pointed to the cages only this time with the gun.

"Creatures?" Alex offered helpfully causing Max to shoot him a look that would wither grass.

"Yes! Creatures." Liz nodded slightly as her eyes shifted to Alex. "Thank you."

"You're welcome." Alex smiled at her acknowledgement and crossed his hands in front of him with a satisfied air. Turning his eyes back to Max who was now glaring at him, Alex saw his former partner's expression and shrugged. "What? I was just trying to help..."

Max rolled his eyes with a shake of his head then turned back to Liz with a suddenly compliant smile as he put up his hands in surrender. "Ok. Alright. I can see you're determined to not let us get any further than the front door with these fuzzy, warm, loveable little animals."

Max swept his hand backwards to indicate the cages behind him as his voice took on a relaxing, almost cooing tone of a salesman gentling a difficult customer into a Porsche knowing full well they could only afford a Pinto. "And even though I think it's a mistake, I respect that. Let me guess. You're main concern is safety right? Well, I'll have you know that wolf cubs are one of the most docile wild animals around. In fact, if you think about it, it's just like playing with a puppy."

"Yeah. A puppy that can rip your hand to pieces." Liz snorted before rolling her eyes.

"Or keep you warm when it's bitter cold and your shaking like there's no tomorrow." Max responded as he knelt next to the cage and reached his hand in to pet one of the furry gray and black animals. Max looked back up at Liz locking eyes with her. "Or even keep you safe...save your life even...if given the right circumstances...and the chance."

Liz swallowed hard at Max's choice of words. There was even a hint of...was that understanding she saw hidden deep inside those fathomless depths? Understanding that came with secret knowledge, perhaps? Is it possible he knew something? That somehow he'd found out? No, that was impossible. There's no way he could have found out. In fact, she knew he didn't.

No. If Max Evans knew of her past, he would run faster than a hare in a race. He'd disappear and forget he ever knew her because it would all be too difficult for a man like him. A corporate raider who liked the thrill of tearing things apart, but rarely had the stomach to stay and hold things together. He'd drop her so fast her head would spin. Of that one thing…she was very, very sure.

Shaking away those thoughts Liz turned her eyes once more to the wolf cubs and felt the beginning of a smile tug at the corner of her lips as one of the cubs turned its head to stare at her as if on cue. Opening it's mouth, he let his small pink tongue hang out in a pant and Liz instantly lost her resolve as his blue eyes almost...twinkled...at her.

Liz's arm dropped to her side as a small, helpless smile began to make it's way to her lips. Max stood and moved quickly to close the gap between them arresting the gun from her limp grip and securing his immediate safety just in case she changed her mind. A feat which this particular woman could do with amazing speed and agility. Much like the wind changing its course...swift, powerful and completely unpredictable.

An embarrassed flush spread over Max's cheeks when Alex advanced toward him with a large grin plastered to his face. Alex had a hard time keeping his voice to a whisper as he struggled to keep his laughter in check at the fact he knew from the start and Max was now realizing. "You've been out of the business too long, my friend..."

"It isn't funny." Max whispered as he displayed the plastic gun to Alex and before Alex got a chance to say anything. "How was I supposed to know it was a toy gun? It looks just like the real thing..."

Alex patted Max's back. "Like I said...too long." He glanced back at Liz who had gravitated to the wolf cubs and was now kneeling in front of them talking to them and trying to coax V into joining her. He smiled appreciatively. "She's just like I always imagined...a real piece of work."

"You don't know the half of it." Max responded back as his eyes sparkled with unveiled admiration.

Seeing the suddenly dazed look on Max's face, Alex grinned. "Doesn't seem to like you much though. Me, on the other hand…"

Max's gaze snapped to Alex's face when he heard his friend voice an interest in pursuing Liz for himself. "Don't *even* think about it. See, what's going on is that she really *does* like me deep down inside, she's just resisting it, that's all."

"Oh, is that what it is?" Alex asked with a knowing grin. "Well, she seems to be doing a damn good job of resisting."

Max's eyes moved back to Liz as he heard her laugh when one of the wolf cubs licked her hand. A smile began to curve his lips upward. "She's pretty amazing, isn't she?"

Alex let out a sigh and nodded, his eyes still holding a bit of stardust from being so close to his idol of younger days, before turning back to Max. "Uh…Max?"

"Yeah." Max's absent reply further convinced Alex that Max was getting in over his head on this one.

"Can I keep the gun?" Alex's voice held a note of awe as he stared at the gun in Max's hand.

Max looked at Alex like he'd gone crazy. "What? What for?"

Alex looked down as an embarrassed blush caused his skin to darken further. "Well, she…touched it. So, I was thinking that…maybe…" Alex stopped and looked away as he sought a reasonable explanation why he'd want such a thing. Coming up with one, he cleared his throat. "…I…I could run finger prints…"

Max threw his head back and laughed then leaned toward Alex in a conspiratorial whisper. "Right. Or add it to your star memorabilia collection." Max's laughter died quickly as his eyes rested on Liz who had turned to him unexpectedly.

Hearing Max's laugh, Liz was reminded of her earlier outburst. She turned from the wolf cages and walked up to Max her eyes flashing with fire. "In my office. Now."

As she sauntered past him, Max let out a sigh and dropped his head with a mumble. "If I'm not back in five I give you permission to come in with guns blazing…" He handed the toy gun to Alex and looked at him pointedly. "Real guns, ok?"
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Silence filled the room as Liz moved to stand behind her desk. She sat down and folded her hands in front of her. Leveling Max with a gaze she began her query slowly and calmly. "Alright. Would you like to tell me what this latest stunt is all about?"

Max casually leaned against her closed door, crossing his legs at his ankles and stuffing his hands behind his back. "Nothing more than me trying to make up for what happened yesterday."

A dark eyebrow raised. "With wolf cubs."

"Yep."

Liz leaned forward and pursed her lips trying to keep her anger in check but failing with each passing word she uttered. "You bring wolf cubs in here as a piece offering after being the Big Bad Wolf to me all week and you don't think I'm going to get the significance? Do you really think I’m that stupid?"

Max shook his head and let out a sigh. "No. But I do think you jump to conclusions without having all the facts."

A wry chuckle escaped Liz. "Is that so?"

Without answering directly, Max's eyes softened as he cut to the chase. "We aren't together."

Liz blinked in surprise, her tightly drawn lips and firm set of her jaw edged with a pride that wouldn't allow her to utter the questions in her eyes pleading with Max to explain. A plea which Max complied with rather eagerly. "Tess…the woman you saw me with. I know her from my business dealings with her father. We hang out at social functions. Occasionally even go together. She dropped into town unexpectedly last night so I showed her around town a bit before putting her on a plane out of here." He paused, his eyes locking with Liz's to make sure she felt the full import of his next words. "We're only friends. Never anything more."

A surge of relief shot through Liz only to be replaced by instant denial when the kiss she saw between Max and Tess the night before assaulted her mind with a vengeance. The magazine article about the couple in question still lay open on Liz's desk and a slow, armed smile touched her lips. "Not what this says."

Max glanced at the open magazine then back up to Liz. "They lied. Happens all the time. I could have been holding hands with Bozo the Clown and the article would have been exactly the same."

"Bozo, huh? And how exactly would you tell the difference?" Sarcasm enveloped every word as Liz revealed much more than she'd intended. "Would it be the frizzy hair or the big lips that attack you in the middle of the night at your doorway?"

Sudden realization hit Max. Liz had seen Tess the night before. Seen her kissing him…

Max squared his shoulders and pushed himself away from the door when he saw Liz's upraised eyebrow. The doubts still lingering in her eyes. "We're only friends. She wants more. I don't. I never have. I never will." Another pause as Max's penetrating gaze settled fully on Liz's expression. The rigid stillness of her posture.

A growing thrill of excitement coursed through him and he couldn't stop the light of realization from flashing in his eyes. "You're jealous. And that makes you very scared."

"Scared?" Liz scoffed with a roll of her eyes. No need to address the 'jealous' comment. They both knew the truth that she was. She'd made that abundantly clear in the gallery when she ran like a teenage girl who'd just caught her boyfriend making out with another girl. There was no denial on that front that Max would buy. Better go for the easy sale.

"Yes. Scared. And mistrustful." Max stood to his full height and took a few steps forward till he was towering over her desk. Placing his palms on the desktop he leaned down and locked eyes with her as his voice began to soften with intensity. "And you know what else that makes me wonder?"

Liz swallowed hard and tried not to let him see how his words and actions were getting to her lately. Correction…had been getting to her since the day she met him. Unfortunately for her, Max had an uncanny ability to see beyond all of her walls and protests to the real issues. Still, that didn't keep her from trying to put as many obstacles in his way as possible. "Do I really care…"

Max continued as if she hadn't spoken. Some because his momentum was building, but mainly because he'd seen that flicker in her eyes. The one that told him he was getting to her. That somehow he was reaching behind that wall of hers and touching her deep inside. "It makes me wonder if you've always been this way or if you've grown into it. I'd say it's the latter. I'd say something or rather…someone…happened to you and ever since then you've been unable to open your heart to anyone and really feel." Confident pride edged his voice. "Until me."

Max waved his hand in the air when he saw her open her mouth to protest. "And don't even bring up Sean because if you really loved him…if you had really let him in to your heart and soul…he'd be all around you. In this office. At your home. As it is, you don't even have a picture of him here. And I bet you'd be hard pressed to even find one. The only time his name passes your lips is when you're trying to throw him up in my face as your first line of defense when you feel I'm getting too close."

"How dare you…!" Liz stood and leaned across the desk now eye level to Max. Mirroring his stance, her fingertips only a breath away from his, Liz could practically feel the sparks flying between them. The tingling sensation that jumped from his body into hers. That sparked renewed life in both their eyes.

"I dare because I'm right!" Max stated plainly not backing down an inch. "And if you were courageous enough to take a good long look at yourself you'd know that what I'm saying is true!"

Steam began to pour out of Liz's ears and her breathing became labored as she tried to control the fear-based anger that was welling up inside of her. Balling her hands into fists she pushed the words out through her clenched teeth. "GET…OUT…OF…MY…OFFICE…AND OUT OF THIS BUILDING OR I'LL HAVE YOU THROWN OUT!!"

A cocky smile passed over Max's lips and pushed himself off the desk, standing tall. "Too close again, huh?" He put his hands up in surrender and took a step back when he saw her eyes film over with moistness. "Fine. Kick me out. It's still not going to change the truth. Then again…you already know that, don't you?"

He turned and headed toward the door but stopped in his tracks when she yelled a second command. "And take those damn cubs with you when you leave!" Liz yelled half-afraid to have him walk out the door and half-afraid he wouldn't.

Max spun around to face her and began shaking his head emphatically. "No. Contrary to what you think, there *is* a purpose here much higher than winning a point in this little game of ours. Or even making you squirm as much as I enjoy doing that. I brought those cubs to help those kids that you claim to care so much about. See, like you, they've been damaged. Their hearts
are bruised and their faith in human decency has been destroyed. They're afraid and lost and feel like they have no control."

"Well, I'm going to give them back some control. Over their fears. Over their loneliness. And frankly, I don't need your permission to do it. I've already discussed this with Claire and she has given her approval. So, yes, Ms. Blake, I *will* leave your office, but I'm *not* leaving the premises until I have done what I set out to do…which is helping those children in what little way I can."

Max cocked his head to the side and sent her a steely smile. "I'm here to stay, Kendall. I suggest you get used to it…"

Liz let out a yell as she whipped off her shoe and sent it flying through the air to land against the door just as Max slammed it behind him.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Liz glanced down at her watch as she paced back and forth on the docks. It was already nearing 9:00. They were supposed to meet at 8:15 this evening. She wondered if something had happened to Grace. If she'd had a hard time getting out of the house. Liz closed her eyes and sighed remembering the moments in her past when she'd been terrified to even blink. To move.

Fear. It had gripped her heart, body and soul. It had stopped her all those years ago from doing what she knew needed to be done. It was stopping her now. From taking a chance. From feeling again. From being alive.

If only she had her own personal wolf cub.

Liz smiled to herself and shook her head with a chuckle as she slipped onto the bench. Max had pulled it off again. After she had calmed considerably from her confrontation with Max, Liz had warily made her way to the playroom to see how he was faring with his grand plan to unite child and beast.

The said union had been a beautiful thing to watch. Children who had formerly shied away from human touch were openly petting the baby cubs. Smiling with pride and awe when they touched the soft fur. Giggling when a tiny pink tongue would shoot out to lick a hand or chubby cheek.

And Max. He'd been the ring master of it all.

Spreading hope and banishing fears that otherwise threatened to overwhelm them. His eyes sparkled with happiness when he was able to coax a wary hand to reach out and claim the prize of instinctive friendship. So much so that Liz silently rebuked her own doubts of Max's good will. In that moment, in that room, holding a child on his lap he had had no ulterior motives. Nothing except the smiles that greeted him without reservation.

The sound of footsteps broke through Liz's thoughts and she turned toward the stairs expecting to see Grace. Instead, the most recent subject of her musing appeared casually dressed as before. His raven hair was falling over his forehead meeting his dark eyebrows and adding a decided layer of sensual mystery to his bearing. More than the usual. Liz drank in the sight of him as he walked from the stairs to the edge of the docks and stood silently gazing out over the water. Oh, how she longed to know what he was thinking about. What emotions were gripping his heart...

The sight of the sun setting across the water had always brought a sense of peace to Max. If there was one thing he needed right now, it was peace. After the run in with Liz earlier, he'd also had to pull Kyle's butt out of the latest business fire he carelessly set when he went chasing after the wrong CEO's secretary…again. Not to mention just how vague Kyle had been in answering his questions regarding the trouble with the Stars. It all made him very uneasy. Completely on edge.

The only bright light to his day had been the children. The smiles on their faces made everything worthwhile somehow. The more he saw, the more he understood Liz's desire to help these kids. The more he began to share that desire. If only she could believe that. It was partly his fault that she didn't. The moment he walked into town, he'd been playing her. Pushing all the right buttons. Proving her right that she couldn't fully trust him. How could she when he'd been less than honest with her?

Maybe he could still prove it to her somehow. Maybe he could repair what damaged he'd caused and try to build on a new foundation. Build what? He wasn't quite sure. He just knew he needed to do something to fix the mess he'd created. He also knew he didn't have the strength to do it tonight. Max was grateful to be meeting Alex here. Maybe a few hours with a good friend could give him the strength to face her again.

Max's private moment was interrupted by the sound of Edwin Graham's voice behind him. "Beautiful night isn't it? Some would think it a perfect night for romance." His wolfish gaze turning upward to the sky. "A night for wishing on stars and making dreams come true. For sentimental fools, that is." Bringing his gaze back to meet Max's, Edwin's lips curled into a devious smile. "I, on the other hand, am not so sentimental. I consider this a night for proposals to be made that will satisfy all parties involved."

Max whirled to face Edwin, unaware of a pair of dark eyes only feet away taking in everything. Masking his emotions quickly so as not to give Edwin leverage he couldn't afford. A wry smile claimed his lips as he commented glibly. "You know, you constantly amaze me, Eddie. The way you make romance sound like a slimy business deal would make even a snake want to shed his own skin out of sheer embarrassment for your kind."

"It's a gift." Edwin retorted, his blue eyes beginning to beam with devilment. "Then again, maybe it's because business is what I have in mind right now. And since 'proposal' seems to be the word of the evening, I thought I'd pitch you one of my own."

Max stuck his hands in his pockets. "I'm really not in the mood, so if you'll please excuse me…"

"Walking away from this would not be a wise move on your part, I'm afraid." Edwin threw in as his tone became full of warning. "In fact, it would have devastating effects for people you...care about...if you did."

Max pursed his lips. He was far from being in the mood to play these games with Edwin, but it seemed he wasn't being given that much of a choice. By Edwin's manner Max knew he wasn't going to like this, but he could also tell Edwin would make him regret it even more if he walked away. "Alright, Edwin. You have my ear. But not for games. So why don't you just cut to the chase and tell me what you want."

Edwin's eyes twinkled with victory. "I want what's best for the docks project...and in turn EMG, of course."

"Ah, of course." Max nodded in understanding as to where this was leading. Edwin was going to bring up the inevitable blackmail on the docks project. "And you think that would be...what?"

Edwin didn't surprised Max at all with his next words. "Your 51% share of Hardwick Industries."

Max's eyes narrowed. "Sorry. Not for sale."

Edwin shook an aged finger at Max. "Ah, now, now. Let's not be too hasty. See, I've already spoken with your brother and he seemed eager to consider the possibility. Practically promised it to me in fact."

Mind whirling quickly to put pieces of a new puzzle into place, Max's jaw worked angrily. "Let me get this straight." Max's voice was low and cold as he turned an icy gaze on Edwin Graham. In that moment, Edwin truly understood what it meant to be chilled to the bone with one look from Max Evans. "Knowing that I own Hardwick Industries, you approach my brother for permission to buy? On what basis? He has no say in the matter."

"Why…on the basis that you're brother and I have had favorable dealings in the past…"

"Ah, yes. The blackmail." Max interrupted with a hint of a smile in his voice.

Edwin chuckled though this eyes widened a bit in surprise. He certainly hadn't expected Max to know about blackmailing Kyle, but it wasn't something he couldn't work with. "I'm not sure I know what you mean, my dear boy."

"Don’t you?" Tilting his head to the side, Max pursed his lips. "Well, let me see if I can enlighten you a bit." Beginning a slow pace back and forth on the pier, Max laid out the story. "You approached my brother some time back basically laying out the plan for the dock renovation here in New Haven. Nice, solid plan with one or two glitches. One particularly major one from your point a view. Namely, you wanted the property that the New Haven Children's Center sits on. Why would this be such a problem you ask?"

Max paused a moment as he turned to look at Edwin as if expecting him to say something. When Edwin remained firmly silent Max shook his head. "No? Well, why don't I tell you then? It's because of Kendall Blake. Because of her involvement with your grandson, Sean. Because of her passion for those children. Now, granted, I don't see you much as the protective family type, but there's something about Kendall that makes even you hesitant to hurt her."

"So you came up with a plan. Blackmail my brother with some trumped up information you say you have on me. That way, my name and the name of my company would be on a document that will steal that home from Kendall and those children. A document that will, in essence, place that property into your hands when the dust settles so it can appear that you've 'saved' this place for Kendall. And you wanted us to do this all to save your slimy, back-stabbing hide."

"What's interesting to me is why you didn’t approach me, Eddie. Is it because you knew I wouldn't fold? You knew I would put up a fight you wouldn't be able to win? That I'd hit back…hard." Nodding his head, Max approached Edwin. "Yeah. Yeah, I think that's what it was. I think if you really know what you say you know about my past, then you know beyond a shadow of a doubt that I would fight tooth and nail for this center instead of against it."

Amber eyes were burning with holy light as Max circled Edwin on the pier. Like a shark circling its prey. "What you didn't expect is that I would swoop into town unaware of the secret deal you and my brother made. That I would take the Center on as my own personal project. That I would actually care. That I would out maneuver you."

At Max's last statement, Edwin let out a belly laugh. "Out maneuver me! That is definitely the best joke I've heard all day…"

Quirking a smile in Edwin's direction, Max shrugged his shoulders and stuck his hands in his pockets. "Glad to have entertained but that really wasn't the purpose. I have won this, Edwin. Oh, you may get the property the Center is on. In fact, I know you will. And you'll make it look like I and my company are solely responsible for betraying Kendall and those children, but…" Max took a deep breath and leveled Edwin with a steely gaze. "…when all is said and done, Kendall will have everything she needs to take care of every single one of those kids in a place that will be safe from the likes of you. And it will all start with Hardwick Industries."

Max started to take a step back. "So, enjoy your victory, Eddie. It will be short lived." With a wink Max turned to go but was stopped by Edwin's next words.

"It's obvious I chose the wrong method with you." A smile tinged Edwin's words. "Perhaps I should have taken the damsel in distress angle…"

Whirling back on Edwin, Max's eyes began to shoot fire and his voice was low and terse. "Don't even go there."

"Why not? It is the thing haunting you, isn't it?" Edwin's smile was knowing. His eyes dancing with sadistic delight. "You couldn't save her. You couldn’t save any of them. And now…" Edwin swept his hands outward. "…here in New Haven, you've been given a second chance. A way to make up for what you've done in the past. Or rather…what you failed to do."

Max advanced on Edwin swiftly and pointed an emphatic finger in Edwin's chest. "Never in a million years will I ever betray Kendall. You can taunt me about my past. Hang my failures over my head. Even make me out the bad guy in this whole twisted scheme of yours but I will not trade in her future or the future of those kids for my past. Never."

"Never is quite a long time, my boy. Especially when secrets have a way of slipping out at just the wrong time."

Max pinned Edwin with a cold stare. "Was that a veiled threat I just heard?"

Edwin smiled cagily. "I never threaten. I do, however, on occasion…persuade."

Max took a step forward till they were eye to eye, toe to toe and nose to nose. "Let me make something perfectly clear to you. I don't respond well to blackmail, Edwin. It tends put me on the defensive. And if you think I'm dangerous when I'm on the hunt, you have no idea what I'm like when I feel cornered. So, in case you weren't listening before…I don't care what you know about my past or how you try to use it. If you want a war with me, bring it on."

As protective fire whipped through Max, his voice rumbled low in his chest filling the air with a deadly determination. In that moment, Edwin Graham discovered one more key to Max Evans' weakness. "But keep Kendall out of it. Bring her or any other person I care about into this and I swear to you I will stop at nothing to rip you apart before I bring down your entire house." A slight shake of his head and Max leveled a final warning. "You know I can do it. Don't test me."

Taking a step back, Max forced a smile on his face. He was clearly in control now. Clearly calling the shots. And clearly through with the discussion. "Now, as a sign of good faith, I'm going to let you prove to me that you understood every word I just said by turning around and leaving. Now."

Edwin backed away, defeated…for the moment. "Damsels in distress can prove such wonderful weapons." One last parting shot called over his shoulder sent an unearthly shiver through Max's body. "You just gave me the name of yours…"

Liz sat in stunned shock. She'd never dreamed Edwin could be so cold. So ruthless as to blackmail a person for nothing more than business interests. Liz Parker was no stranger to pure maliciousness, but to see it coming from the grandfatherly quarters of Edwin Graham clearly threw her for a loop. Her attention was immediately captured by the man who was proving more and more just how much of a sheep in wolves clothing he really was…

"Dammit!" Max's outburst cut through the thick silence as he spun from watching Edwin disappear to face the still peaceful water. His head bent low, Max began a frantic pace back and forth between the two wooden posts at the end of the pier. Rubbing his neck, his dark head began to shake and it was clear that he contemplating his latest run-in with Edwin and all of its ramifications.

Confused. Stunned. Awed. Liz's heart broke wide open as she watched him. It was such a familiar picture. A beautiful, wild animal trapped in a cage. Born to roam free, to feel the wind in its hair and the sun on its back, the cage was closing in now. Restraining him. Slowly squeezing the life out of him. Making him crazy with frustration.

Her beautiful, chestnut stallion was being cornered.

Instinctively, Liz knew the cage. She recognized the four walls of a past one tried to escape. Heard the click of the lid as it was being locked above him. It wasn't a cage without an escape. Not Max's. All he had to do was let Edwin's blackmail play out and he was home free, relatively speaking. Give in to Edwin's further demands and just walk away. Instead, he'd placed himself and the financial life of his company at risk…for her. And from the way he spoke, he was willing to go even further.

It was beyond time for Liz to meet him halfway…

"Max?" Liz's voice called out to him from the shadows of the pier as she stepped forward into the light of a tall lamppost.

Pulling up abruptly, Max swung toward her. "Kendall! God, you scared me." Instant wariness flashed in his eyes. He was so not in the mood for another confrontation…and it showed. "Wait. What the hell are you doing here? Wasn't throwing me out of your office good enough for you? Are you trying to follow me now too? Looking for the perfect opportunity to toss me out of town?"

Understanding where the venom in his voice was originating, Liz choose to ignore his acid remarks and instead focused on lighting his mood. At least, enough so they could have an actual discussion without raised voices or not-so-subtle innuendo. Her hands landed on her hips as she tilted her head to the side as a teasing glint entered her eyes. "Following you? No, I wasn't. As a matter of fact, I was here first. So in all reality, I could ask the same thing of you except…"

Max's hands immediately flew up in protest as his eyes flashed with aggravation as he instantly lashed out at the last person in the world he wanted to hurt. "You're unbelievable! You know that? Well, I have news for you. As much as you might like to think, not everything I do is centered around you..."

Liz bristled instinctively, then forced herself to look beyond Max's anger. She suddenly started to chuckle. "Relax. I'm just teasing."

"You are?" Max sounded genuinely surprised as a dark eyebrow raised.

She nodded, taking a step forward as her eyes narrowed and her voice sharpened. "Why? Is that so surprising? That I can actually joke?"

Max shrugged and eyed her carefully. Was there ever a time that fire wasn't sparking in her eyes? And how did she do that? Change emotions in a heartbeat. One moment her eyes had a twinkle of teasing the next a spark of anger. "Let's just say Rosie O'Donnell you are not."

He was making this attempt to be conciliatory more difficult with each passing moment. Liz crossed her arms in front of her at Max's sarcastic remark returning sarcasm in kind. "Oh, and what? You think you're Jay Leno or something?"

Max shook his head in frustration. "God…you know, there really is no way to win with you is there?"

Liz flipped her hair behind her shoulders and slipped right back into defensive mode. "Glad you finally realized that, Max. Now maybe you can jump on the next plane out of here and end this foolish…"

A crack shot through the air. Max saw a quick flash of light out of the corner of his eye and his head snapped the side just as a new cracking sound drowned out the rest of Liz's thought. "Kenna! GET DOWN!" Max yelled suddenly and instinctively lurched forward, wrapping his arms around Liz and throwing them both to the ground covering her body with his.

They lay still a few moments partly from shock, partly from fear. When Max heard no more shots forthcoming he raised himself up and looked down to check on Liz. Her eyes were tightly shut and she was holding her breath as tightly as she was holding onto him.

"Sweetie? Sweetie, are you ok?" Max swallowed the fear that rose in his chest and gently shook her.

"Max?" Liz's voice sounded very small as her eyes fluttered open and she gaze up in complete terror at him. "What…what happened? Was that…"

Max reached out and gently pushed the hair out of her eyes. "I don't know, sweetie. I don’t know exactly what that was. A…shot. I'm not sure who it was aimed…" Max shook his head and stopped the thought that it had been intentional. He pushed himself up and stabled himself, his eyes scanning the area for any further attacks, before reaching down and gingerly pulling Liz into a sitting position next to him. "Are you ok? Did you get hurt?"

Max's eyes began to roam Liz's hands. Her arms. Her body. There didn't seem to be any immediate damage. Her face. There was blood coming from her forehead… "Oh, God. You're bleeding…" Max breathed and swallowed hard as he reached up with shaking hands and tenderly touched the sticky liquid at the edge of her hairline.

Liz didn't feel anything. No pain. No blood. No fear. She sat staring at the man before her. The one that she'd treated like an enemy since the day she set eyes on him. The one who had just saved her life. Despite the last few moments of imminent danger, in his arms she felt completely…safe.

Liz's misty eyes blinked slowly as she reached up and took Max's face in her hands. When she could finally speak, her whispered statement was full of awe. "You…you saved…my life."

Max's gaze moved from the small gash on her head to her eyes. His chest tightened when he saw the look waiting for him. There was no anger or mistrust. No fear. A half-smile touched his lips as his fingers unconsciously ran through her hair before caressing the side of her face. His voice was low and tender. "I told you all a wolf needed was a chance…"

Liz let out a shaky breath as her lips inched closer to his. "You've got it." Her focus moved to his lips and she unconsciously licked her own. "Now what are you going to do with it?"

tbc…

posted on 21-Oct-2001 9:18:02 PM
~ chapter 23 ~


Angel squinted into the darkness past her back door. "Max?"

Max shifted uncomfortably in front of her, his hands stuffed in his jean pockets and a shy, embarrassed look on his face. Like a scared little boy afraid to confess to his neighbor the sin of slamming a home run into their attic window, Max shuffled his feet and glanced away nervously. "Hey, Angel. I'm sorry to wake you, but I…I really needed to ask you something."

Angel nodded and stepped back to open the door further. "Sure. Come on in."

Max stayed rooted to his spot, his eyes quickly glancing past Angel's shoulder into her warmly decorated sitting room. The clock on the wall read six o'clock. "Actually, I…I can't stay. In fact, I just wanted to ask a favor then I'll be on my way."

"Ok." Angel leaned against the door. "What's the favor?"

"May I take Jaedan for a drive?" Hastening to stop any protests, Max leaned forward the earnestness in his expression stopping any thoughts of denying him, even though a knot began to grow in the pit of Angel's stomach.

"I…I know it's really, really early. And…and I'm sure she's probably still asleep and I'd have to wake her and all, but I…I just really want to spend a little time with her. Look, I know you don't really know me that well and these days you can't be all that careful with who you trust, especially with a child…so if you wanted to come too, you would certainly be more than welcomed…"

"You're leaving, aren't you?" Angel's direct question halted Max's hurried, jumbled request.

Max blinked at her abruptly perceptive question. Then a single nod of his head was Angel's answer.

Angel stepped to the side and waved Max into the room. Letting out a sigh as she closed the door behind him after he hesitantly took her invitation and moved forward. "Max…look I know Kendall can be difficult. So, just tell me what she did now and I'll…"

"That's…not the problem." Max smiled slightly as he turned and sunk into a nearby chair. Shaking his head, Max's eyes lit up for a moment as his mind obviously filled with images too precious to share. "We actually…connected…last night."

"Connected?"

"Yeah…we, uh…" Max cleared his throat, not sure exactly how many details to reveal to such a motherly soul without hurting his reputation or embarrassing Liz. "…spent the entire night together." Swallowing hard, the light drained from his expression as the reason for his visit to Angel hit home once more. "Which is exactly the reason I need to go."

Angel blinked in surprise. Now, that was not something she had expected. She'd definitely need to get details from Liz later. Until then, she had a crisis to route. "You're scared." Angel's perceptive eyes pinned Max with a look he couldn't deny.

But he tried anyway. "No. Not…really." He let out a sigh when he saw her upraised eyebrow. "Ok. Yes. But not for the reason you think." Max scooted to the edge of his chair and leaned forward, anxious to explain his reasons to one who would understand.

Taking a deep breath, Max's voice lowered to a whisper as he gambled more than his own future in his next confession. "I know, Angel. I know about her past. Her talent…the singing. The painting. He real name...Liz." His gaze wavered. "The Program…"

Releasing a shaky breath, Angel leaned back to process the information. Not because she hadn't already guessed Max knew but she never dreamed he'd admit it so freely. Which could only mean one thing. He was really serious about leaving. Now, the only real question was why. "So, its her past that's scaring you away."

"No." Max shook his head emphatically. "No, not her past in and of itself. That would never be enough to…" Looking away uncomfortably, Max's gaze dropped to his hands as he clenched them in front of him with determined studiousness. "It's my past I'm afraid of."

"Your past." Angel repeated, her good impression of Max beginning to spiral out of control. He never ceased to amaze her with how open he was capable of being. Yet how guarded at times and always full of mystery. And the mysteries kept coming…

"It's…all very hard to explain. In fact, I can't explain it." Max stated before glancing back up to find curious dark eyes resting with sympathetic concern on him. "Let's just say the things I've done in the past…the people I've been involved with…well, they're not all that…" Max paused as if searching for the right word. "…compatible…with a woman who is hiding from an ex-husband who wants to see her dead."

Angel's eyes flickered with understanding. So Sheila had been right. Max had enemies that still haunted him. "I see."

"So, its best this way. For me to go. Now." Max bit his lower lip and cleared his throat, an indication just how hard this whole situation was for him. "Before that connection we made gets…you know…too hard to break."

"Is that what you want to do?"

A gentle smile touched Max's lips as his eyes softened perceptibly. The whisper was barely audible. "No." A short pause followed as Max searched his heart for a reason not to continue this plan. None came to his mind. Clearing his throat as if to shake determination back into his soul, Max straightened and continued. "But what I want and what Liz needs are two different things. Which is exactly why I'm leaving in a few hours…"

"Hogwash." Angel interrupted hotly pulling Max's gaze instantly to her face. "She needs someone who loves her enough to not walk away when the going gets tough."

"She needs to be safe." Max countered.

"She needs you."

Silence filled the room as Max and Angel's gaze held. Angel's whisper sent shivers of truth down Max's spine as she repeated herself. "She needs you, Max. Just as much as you need her."

"I need peace of mind."

"She gives you peace of mind and you know it." Angel's eyes flashed with righteous fire.

"Angel…"

"You've fallen in love with her, haven't you? With her spirit and her fire. And all of her hidden beauty." Angel leaned forward, her penetrating gaze searching Max's expression. Without speaking a word, he confirmed her statement. The flicker of truth in his eyes. The flush of his cheeks. The way his adam's apple bobbed up and down trying to hold back emotions he clearly wasn’t ready to voice.

Reaching over to pat Max's hands in a motherly gesture that caused a lump to rise instantly in Max's throat, Angel continued. "It's ok, Max. You don't have to admit it right now. You should save saying it the first time for Liz anyway."

"Angel, I don't…it's not…" Unable to bring himself to completely deny Angel's confident comments. "Alright. Yes, I feel something. Something…huge. But I'm not ready for…risking it all. And you said I needed to be ready for that. You told me I'd have to be willing to give as much as Liz will have to and I'm just…I'm not willing to risk…her."

Angel shook her head at him and smiled a slow, knowing smile. "Don't you get it? That's exactly what being in love is all about. That kind of selflessness. The kind that gives so the other person can be the best they can be. You are so perfect for each other, Max. You see who she really is. Beyond the stable, levelheaded woman she lets everyone see to the reckless, passionate girl she tries so hard to hide. The dreams she tries to deny. The hopes she tries so hard not to have. She needs that more than you'll ever know. She needs someone to love. Someone to teach her what its like to feel alive again…"

"She can't feel alive if she's dead!" Max pulled his hands from Angel's and stood in agitation before moving to pace only a few feet away. "I'm telling you now, Angel…I can't keep her safe if I'm in her life. God, you have no idea how much I wish I could. How much I hate that my past will put her in danger. But I will not…I cannot have her blood on my hands. It would kill me this time…"

A long pause followed as Angel considered Max's words. The passion with which he spoke them. The conviction in his voice that he could do nothing but bring Liz harm. The hint of another loss too painful to bear again.

"Then I guess this really is it, huh? There's really nothing I can say to convince you to listen to your heart." Angel finally spoke and Max turned the saddest eyes she'd ever seen on her. The message in his expression and his stance said it all. Taking a deep breath, Angel rose from her chair and approached him. "Well, then. I just have one question for you. Why is it so important for you to see Jaedan?"

Just the mention of her name brought a smile to Max's lips. "Because…because she made me see the stars again. The way I used to. With awe and faith. And reminded me how to look for princesses behind beastly masks." A light chuckle escaped Max as his eyes began to twinkle before he turned serious once more.

"Love is part of my vocabulary again, Angel. In large part because of Jaedan. And that's a very, very precious gift to give someone." He shook his head with a shrug. "I just don't want her to grow up not believing in fairy tales because her Mr. Prince Charming left without saying good-bye."

Unexpected tears gathered in Angel's dark eyes. "Go. You know your way to her room. Just…beware she's not going to be a happy camper when you wake her up this early."

Max's first grin spread across his face. "Duly noted." Grin slipping from his face, Max placed his hands on Angel's shoulders, a solemn promise emanating from his eyes. "If Liz ever needs anything, Angel…anything. Money. A place to hide…I have so many properties all around the world…they're all open to her. And to you…and Jaedan. Anytime. Day or night. Tomorrow or 50 years from now. Please, please let me do that much to keep her safe."

Angel nodded her consent and Max flashed her a million dollar smile of gratitude. "I'll um…I’ll just get Jaedan. I won't keep her long." He impulsively pulled Angel into a hug. "Thank you for everything. And…" Pulling back he looked back into Angel's eyes. "Keep Liz safe for me, ok?"

Angel nodded again, the tears filling her heart making it impossible for her to speak. Until she watched Max walk to the door and start to leave. "Max. Wait. Are you going say good-bye to Liz? She's losing her Prince Charming too, you know?"

A sad, wistful smile touched Max's lips as he paused to look back at Angel. "Liz doesn't believe in fairy tales, Angel." He shut his eyes a moment in reflective silence when he saw Angel's eyes puddle with tears before nodding his head. "She'll get her good bye. Only it'll be one that Liz will understand…"
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
He was doing the right thing. He knew he was. He had no choice really. Her life was in danger. And he'd promised to keep her safe. So...this really was the only option. Wasn't it? Of course it was. After everything that Max had learned about Liz's past and seen with his own two eyes, how could he doubt this decision wasn't the best? For both of them?

Max let out a sigh and closed his eyes as he leaned his head back against the chair. Then why did it feel so wrong?

Because you're a coward. Because, for the first time in years, you're feeling something. Something so huge it will change your life. And you know you should sit tight and see where this roller coaster takes you but you're not willing to take that risk…

Then another voice whispered in Max's ear. But if you do take the risk, it will be more than your own happiness at stake. It will be lives. Yours. Hers. Possibly people you both care about. And if you lose and live through it, this time it really will kill you…

Flat out, shaken-to-the-core-of-your-being, running-for-your-sanity petrified. That's exactly what Max Evans was. A mass of frayed, unnerved emotions that just couldn't stop trembling with fear. Visions from his past kept assaulting him. Mingling with current images of recent events. Blood flowing freely and frantic shouts. Whizzing bullets and fallen bodies.

Then there was Liz.

The way she looked at him last night. Her eyes bright and full of awe. Her lips slightly parted. Just waiting. Waiting for him…

Max's gaze moved from the small gash on her head to her eyes. His chest tightened when he saw the look waiting for him. There was no anger or mistrust. No fear. A half-smile touched his lips as his fingers unconsciously ran through her hair before caressing the side of her face. His voice was low and tender. "I told you all a wolf needed was a chance…"

Liz let out a shaky breath as her lips inched closer to his. "You've got it." Her focus moved to his lips and she unconsciously licked her own. "Now what are you going to do with it?"

Tingling anticipation hung in the air. Making it thick and heavy…amazingly hard to breathe. Electric sparks zinged between them. Desire swirled around them like an ancient melody. There were no more barriers. Not from Liz.

In that moment he knew. Max knew he'd done it. He'd broken through her walls. Certainly not completely and perhaps only temporarily, but she was waiting for him. And after the battle he'd fought to bring her to this place of trust, Max had every right to claim his victory. Finally. An open and willing Liz. Wrapped in his embrace. With hope in her ebony eyes and desire in her aching fingertips, Liz Parker made it clear she wanted only one thing: for Max Evans to kiss her.

Slowly, hesitantly, Max's fingers caressed Liz's soft cheeks before gently curling under her jaws and pulling her toward him as his eyes locked on his target. Those lips. Full and red.

Red. A flash of long dark hair streaked by brilliant red blood flew through Max's mind and he paused abruptly. His breath stopped as the past caught up with him in the next heartbeat…

He could hear the terrorist's question directed to him, but his mind had ceased to work the moment they'd pulled her through the door with a gun to her head. Her green eyes were wide with fright and her face was as pale as marbled stone. They twisted her arms behind her causing her to yelp in pain. "Last chance, Evans. What are you going to do with it?"

"NO! Let her go! She has nothing to do with this. Nothing!"

"Ah, but she does. If the threat of her death prompts your mouth to open with the information we need, then I'd say you little girlfriend here has quite a bit to do with it."

"Max…" McKenna's plea caused tears to spring instantly to his eyes. Something had gone wrong. Terribly wrong. How this had happened, how she'd gotten involved, Max had no idea. But now that she was, he was faced with the most horrifying decision of his life. Talk and save the life of the woman he loved or keep his mouth shut and save thousands of lives.

"Kenna…" Max's whisper was ripped from his body as agonizing realization swept over him. He didn't have a choice.

He opened his mouth but before he could utter a sound, all hell literally broke loose. Guns began blazing. Shouts and smoke filled the dim warehouse. Max immediately sprung into action as the room was instantly filled with armored bodies moving into classic hand-to-hand battle. His captors were quickly downed and Max lunged in the direction his precious McKenna had been standing.

Only she wasn't standing now. She was a crumpled heap of grossly angled limbs and thick hair that covered her face. Dropping to his knees by her side, he was faintly aware of a tortured scream. Completely oblivious that the scream was coming from his own throat, he could almost feel the warm liquid pressed against his face as he buried his head in the crook of her neck and crushed her soft, lifeless body against him. Rocking. Gently. Tears beginning to stream as the nickname Kenna became a sorrowful chant of denial…

Instantly, the images faded and Max's target changed. Amber eyes flicked from soft lips upward to met ebony eyes and a soft, helpless sound hit the back of his throat. Brown. Not green. Darkest midnight, not sparkling emeralds. And so much emotion there. Passion. Fire. Breathless awe. All for him. All for a man who didn't deserve any of it.

He needed contact. He needed to soak her warmth into a body that had suddenly grown eerily cold. To feel the fiery soul of one woman chase away the fragile ghost of another, long dead and gone. His forehead connecting with Liz's, his nose gently nuzzling and his lips only a breath away, Max squeezed his eyes shut in sudden conflict as the sound of gunfire echoed in hallways of his mind.

His body trembled.

He wanted Liz. So much. More than he'd ever imagined. Had since the moment he laid eyes on her. Needed her. More than he thought possible. With a hunger deep inside of him that grew with each passing second he felt her skin against his. Her heart thundering through his body. He'd dreamed of this so often he felt as if it had already happened. Except that it hadn't. Yet.

All he had to do was lean forward…

But this was more than a kiss. More than two lips meeting in mutual desire. Max instinctively knew, this one kiss could start something he may very well not be able to control. An all-consuming fire. A river of emotions so deep he could drown with delicious abandon. The healing of hearts. The reawakening of old dreams. Pasts being faced. The merging of two lives.

And that was the problem. His past was full of death. Hers, full of pain. Not a heady combination to one whom had once loved and lost. In a pretty big way. And not all that differently from the way he could have lost Liz just moments before. Not only had that loss followed Max every road he turned down, but guilt shadowed his every move as well as regret. Guilt, regret, loss. An endless cycle that built layer upon layer of distance between Max and any real emotion for such a long time.

Until Liz…

"Max?" His name was barely breathed as Liz's eyes followed her fingertips. Their feather light caress against his lips forced Max to hold back a groan and squeeze his eyes shut again. If he looked into her fathomless eyes any longer, he knew any and all control would be broken. "Max, you're…trembling." Liz's voice was filled with wonder as she pulled back enough to look into his eyes. "What is it? Why are you…"

"Because of you." Max interrupted her in a heated whisper as his fingers slipped back through her hair holding her face firmly, but gently in place. "Because of the way you look at me. The way you whisper my name. How you touch me…" The intense timbre of his voice matched his gaze as he locked penetrating eyes with Liz. "I'm going to keep you safe, Kendall Blake. I promise you, I will." His gaze wavered and his eyes closed in enigmatic defeat. "Even from the wolf that lives inside of me…"

Lips brushing against Liz's forehead was as far as Max would allow himself to go. His sweet, gentle kiss sealing the solemn promise he'd just made. A promise he would die trying to live up to if need be. Extricating himself reluctantly from Liz's tangled limbs, Max stood and scooped Liz up in his arms. She blinked in confused, dazed uncertainty. "Max. What…what are you doing? I can wal…"

"Not on my watch. Not till you're safe." The look Max pinned Liz with caused her to swallow hard, her entire body melting into a pile of mush in his arms. "I'll carry you to the ends of the earth if it'll keep you from getting hurt."

A gentle hand came up to caress Max's face as her eyes searched his. There was realization in her look. A light of understanding. A sigh of contentment. "Amazing. Simply…amazing."

Max swallowed hard and pushed the two-word question out of a tightening chest. "What is?"

"The real Max Evans. No wonder Jaedan calls you her Mr. Prince Charming." Eyes roaming his face, Liz let out an unconscious sigh as she wrapped her arms around his neck and buried her head against his shoulder. Closing her eyes, a faint smile touched her lips. "Definitely feels right to me…"


"You sure you really want to do this?"

Max's eyes snapped open to see his best friend, Alex Whitman, staring down at him. Alex shot him an understanding smile and slipped into the seat next to him. He glanced around at the passengers milling about the airport lobby and leaned back. "You know I'm sure it'd be no biggie to call Angel and set you up for a month or so in that quaint little frilly cottage of yours. You know…if you wanted to stick around for any reason. I hear the local talent around here is phenom and there's an amazing chef who make incredible sniffum and kack…"

Interrupting Alex's suggestion with a question of his own, determination flickered in Max's chocolate eyes. "Find out anything about the shooting?"

Alex let out a sigh and shook his head. "No. Nothing that would make you reconsider anyway."

Leaning forward, Max glanced over to Alex. "What do you mean by that?"

Silence strained between them as Alex debated just how much to tell Max about what he had found out from his contacts from the shooting the night before. There were so many missing pieces of the puzzle. It would be so much simpler if Alex had a clear 'yes' or 'no' answer to Max's impending question of whether the bullet was meant for Max or Liz or neither. The more Alex looked at the details, the stronger his gut feeling said it might have been meant for both.

"Alex…." Max's warning voice pulled Alex's thoughts to the present.

Shrugging, Alex leaned back. "Nothing conclusive, ok? But…it was definitely a set up. No random drive by or senseless nothing."

"Who was the target?" Max's voice was soft and uncertain as his gaze drifted beyond the large window in the airport.

"I honestly don't know."

Releasing a shaky breath Max didn't know he'd been holding, he turned a steady gaze on Alex. "Then there's no way in hell I'm staying."

"Max…you don't know that it had anything to do with you. It could just as easily have to do with her past…"

"Right. It could." Swallowing hard, Max shifted in his seat uncomfortably. "Which is why I need to ask you a favor."

Alex glanced at Max from the corner of his eye. He'd seen that profile so many times in the past. The determined set of his jaw. The faraway look in his eyes. The tightness of his lips. This was going to be huge. "Ok. What's the favor?"

"Watch her. At least for a few days until I can set something up to do it myself. Make sure she's safe for me until then." Max turned pleading eyes on Alex. "Please. I…I really need to know I didn't screw up her life. I need to know she's not in danger because of me."

Alex nodded his consent and Max gave him a half-smile. "Thanks, Alex. I'll never forget you doing this…"

Alex patted Max on the back. "You think I'm doing this for you? Hell, man. You just handed me the perfect opportunity to get to know my teenage idol. Maybe wine and dine her. Sweep her off her feet…"

Max cracked a smile, a cockiness entering his eyes that Alex was relieved to finally see shining in his eyes again. "You can try but you haven't got a chance."

"Really? What gives you that impression?"

Max's smile deepened and a light sigh escaped him. "When she calls you her magic, let me know. I'll hand over my wand and special bunny rabbit in the hat trick. Until then, I wouldn't get my hopes up."

An eyebrow raised and Alex's eyes widened. "She called you her magic?"

Max's smile faded and his gaze wavered. "Yeah. Kinda appropriate, don't you think? Especially now that I'm pulling a disappearing act on her." He bit his lower lip as his eyes raised upward. "God, she's going to hate me."

"Then stay."

Shaking his head emphatically and forcing himself to stand, Max's sad eyes met Alex's. "No. It's best this way. I'd rather have her hate me and move on than stay and give her false hope that could end up killing her."

"Max…"

"My decision is made." Max stated firmly as he watched Alex stand. He held out his hand and grinned. "Man, it was great to see you…work with you again."

Ignoring his hand, Alex pulled Max into a hug. "You too." He pulled back and nodded. "She'll be ok. We'll make sure of it."

"Yeah…" Max nodded in return. "Yeah, we will." He leaned down and picked up his bag, instantly donning the cloak of playboy nonchalance. "Well…I now leave the fair ladies of New Haven to your care, Alex Whitman." With a wink to his friend, Max wiggled his eyebrows. "Treat 'em good."

Alex chuckled. "You bet."

With one last bittersweet glance around the airport and a deep breath, Max Evans turned his back on New Haven and disappeared into the rising sun.

Alex Whitman sank into a chair to plan his next move…

And a pair of green eyes sparkled with victory…

Pulling out her cell phone, McKenna punched a few numbers and waited for the answer to come across the line. "Yeah. It's me. I think I just found Max Evans' Achilles heel."

"Really?" A low voice drawled on the other end of the line. "And what exactly would that be?"

"Why...none other than little ol' me…"

tbc…

posted on 21-Oct-2001 9:20:01 PM
~ Chapter 24 ~

It had all been a dream.

The clock next to her bed read 8:30. The apartment was deathly silent and lifeless. Like a tomb. Like the reality of her life.

A shiver of emptiness ran through her. Liz shut her eyes against tears of disappointment as her hand swept across the cold, abandoned side of her bed. The side that was occupied by a warm, comforting body in her dreams. A body that protected her in a strong but gentle embrace. Kept her safe from haunting nightmares and paralyzing fears.

God, if that was only a dream she certainly wanted to stay in bed forever…

The key turned in the door to her apartment and Max swung it open before stepping carefully inside and slamming it shut with his foot.

"Max. Seriously. I really can walk now." Liz's soft eyes gazed up at Max with growing concern. He'd barely spoken a word to her on the way back to her place. The determined set of his jaw and the haunted look in his eyes remained firmly in place no matter how many times she protested that she was perfectly fine.

There was a tension in his gait that Liz couldn't miss. A possessiveness in the way he held her. Clinging. Needy. Desperately. His fingers curling almost painfully into her flesh. As if he were frantically trying to hold on to something that he'd just found and never wanted to let go of. Yet, at the same time, his effortless strength held her high above the ground, cradled closed to his chest. Secure and protected. Like a cherished treasure. Too precious and delicate to be exposed to the cruel, heartless land they were treading through.

His barely controlled, fiercely tender possession of her body sent a trickling warmth through her heart straight to her soul. She felt Max's heart thundering in his chest as his muscles rippled with strength under her pliable body. It was then she felt the explosion of heat deep in the pit of her stomach, sending a shiver rippling through her. Surprisingly, it wasn't the familiar heat of desire this time. It was an explosion of life. Of belonging. Of safety.

A direct line from the docks to her apartment had been reached in no time and it never occurred to either of them to take a detour to the police station and make a report of the shooting. Or even to the hospital. That should have raised a few warning flags in Liz's mind, had she been thinking.

But she hadn't been. All she'd been doing was feeling. Since the moment she realized just how amazingly safe she felt wrapped in Max's arms, practically all thought had fled her. Which was why she'd allowed him to carry her. Caress her. Gently place occasional kisses against her temple. Sigh into her hair as his chin rested against the top of her head.

But now, reality was coming back to her. They were in her apartment, with no other destination to reach. Bright lights were being turned on and Max still hadn't attempted to put her down. Gently pushing herself away from the comfort of his shoulder--the solace of his steadily beating heart, Liz gazed up at Max. "Max…come on. I'm home now. You really can put me down."

Her words seemed to finally reach him as Max's gaze cautiously swept the room, as if searching for hidden assailants or monsters just waiting for the chance to jump out at them. The taut muscles that had been straining with tension, seemed to relax under her gentle caress and Max swallowed with a nod before heading to Liz's couch.

Gently sitting her down, Max knelt in front of her, his hands moving to capture hers in a desperate attempt to keep some kind of physical contact. His gaze moved once more from her eyes to the gash on her head where dried blood had gathered making the wound look much worse than it actually was. Reaching up, Max touched it gingerly noticing the wince Liz tried to keep in check before his fingers slipped down to caress her cheek.

"Sorry."

The whisper sent shock waves through Liz. It wasn't the word. Or the obvious physical pain he'd just given her with his gentle touch. It was the undercurrent of emotions. The words he wasn't allowing himself to say. The haunted look in his eyes that betrayed volumes of unopened books in the halls of Max Evans' past that were just begging to be dusted off and unsealed.

Even without reading a word, Liz instinctively knew the secret terror racing through Max's heart. A petite hand snuck out of Max's grasp to cover the hand caressing her face. That gesture produced a nearly inaudible sigh from Max as his eyes began to spark with life. "It's ok, Max. You didn't do this to me. It wasn't your fault."

Gaze wavering immediately, Max swallowed hard. "Wish I could believe that…"

"Max…" Confused by his words yet uncannily intuitive to his mood, Liz attempt to soothe his obviously ruffled nerves when a sharp pain sliced through her head causing her grip on Max's hand to tighten and her eyes to squeeze shut in pain.

Panic raced through Max's reaction as he gently cupped her face in his hands, the concern in his penetrating eyes pushing every other thought out of his mind. "Honey, what is it? What's wrong?"

"My head." Liz leaned forward and held her head in pain. "It just…just…" As the pain slipped away, Liz let out a light groan. "Oh, wow. That was…not pleasant…"

Slipping carefully onto the couch, Max wrapped his arm around Liz's shoulder and pulled her into him as he began to run his fingers through her hair. "God, I'm so sorry. I wasn't thinking. You could have a concussion or worse. I should have taken you to the hospital…"

"No." Liz shook her head, her gaze snapping up to meet his. "No, Max, please. No hospitals. No reports." Realizing what she had just blurted out and how odd it would sound, Liz hastened to add an explanation. "I…I hate hospitals. They just…"

"So do I." Max answered softly. She was lying. And they both knew it. But it didn't keep Max from gallantly making her feel as if she weren't with a slight smile. "Too many needles."

"Right." Liz whispered gratefully.

A silent understanding was reached without further question and Max nodded his head in silence. "Right."

Giving Liz a sympathetic look and a gentle kiss on her forehead, Max took a deep breath and immediately prepared himself for action. "Ok, then. I guess you're stuck with me to take care of you. So, let's lay you down here…" Shifting his position to aid Liz is laying down on the couch, Max swung her legs up onto the plush cushions and pulled a nearby blanket on top of her and nervously tucked it around her petite body. Brushing the hair away from her face once she was settled, Max froze.

Protectively hovering over her, a flicker of emotion raced through his eyes and Max swallowed hard once again when his hands had finally stilled in their task and his eyes raised to meet Liz's as she attempted a smile. "It's ok, Max. I'll be ok." Liz assured him as she reached for his hand and gave it a squeeze hoping to alleviate the worry creasing his brow.

"Right. Right, you will." Max released a shaky breath and nodded before dragging his gaze from Liz's face and glancing around the apartment. "If you'll uh…if you'll just point me in the direction of your first aid kit or medical supplies…"

Despite the pain, an amused smile touched Liz's lips and she couldn't keep that smile from reaching her eyes. "What?" Noticing, a confused Max suddenly grinned down at her in return.

"Nothing." A giggle escaped before Liz could restrain it. Max's upraised eyebrow prompted Liz to roll her eyes. "Oh, ok. It's just…tonight alone you've been my bodyguard, my Prince Charming…my personal taxi. Now my doctor. I was just wondering what other role you're going to try to play for me."

"Anything the lady chooses. Although I have to admit playing doctor has definite possibilities." Max teased with a playful wink before seriousness drained the amusement from his eyes when he saw her wince again. "No more stalling. First aid. Where is it?"

"Bathroom. Cabinet. In the back." Liz answered as she wearily leaned back against the pillow on the couch and pointed behind her in the direction of the bathroom.

"Ok." Max patted Liz's hands before standing with an air of reluctance. "Be back in a sec. Don't run away on me ok?" That last question prompted a smile that gave Max enough courage to make his hesitant feet move away from Liz.

While Max was gone, Liz took inventory of the emotions running through her…

Awe. Definitely awe. Max Evans was in her apartment and she not only didn't mind…she wanted him there. How he could change her perceptions and feelings about him as swiftly as a tornado could change directions, completely unnerved Liz. And thrilled her. Excited her. Like the puzzle boxes he'd given her. He was a mystery worth solving. A complete bundle of contradictions, he just never stopped amazing her with each new layer of his persona that was stripped away. Because each new layer displayed a level of Max that was even more magnificent than the one before.

And tonight…he had stripped aw