Chapter 26

"That was some meeting, wasn't it?" Keesha asked with a small laugh as she gathered her papers and slid them into her leather briefcase.

"Yeah, it was pretty intense," AJ replied, loosening his tie. He glanced at his watch and wasn't surprised to see how late it was. The meeting was a long one. He knew that the board of directors, with his grandfather still in attendance and as verbal as usual, could be longwinded, but a four hour meeting was a little ridiculous.

"Four hours!?" she said, shaking her head as she voiced his thoughts. "Can you believe it lasted four hours?"

"No, I can't," he laughed softly. "Grandfather was in his usual demanding mood, but Stefan... I never knew he had such a strong interest in counseling procedures. By the way, thanks for backing me about the parental issues. I didn't think he'd let up until you effectively shut him up."

"Oh, I didn't really shut him up. I just forced him to take a pause during his interrogation. And, no thanks is needed. Counselor/patient confidentiality can't be compromised even in the face of our litigation-happy society. If the kids who come to us can't trust us, what's the point?"

"There is no point," he agreed. As they moved to the double doors, he took a moment to look at her. In the years she'd been away, she'd changed. She was even more confident in herself, and even though he never thought it would be possible, she was even more beautiful. When he held the door open for her, she looked at him and smiled before she walked through. He felt his heart constrict with the old familiar longing and he quickly scolded himself. He had no business looking at her with longing or otherwise. Besides, he was a grown man. He could work with his ex without bringing up the past. He knew he could.

"AJ?" Keesha repeated. She'd called to him several times, but he continued to have a blank stare on his face. She lightly placed her hand on his forearm and gave him a gentle, but firm, squeeze.

The touch of her hand was strong in AJ's realm of consciousness, more so than the sound of her voice. He looked down at where her hand rested on the sleeve of his tweed jacket and wondered how such a light touch could penetrate through the heavy material and go straight to his heart. Not wanting her to know how deeply she affected him, he laughed softly and said, "Huh?"

"Are you okay?" she asked, not fooled by his laughter. "You were miles away. Is something wrong?"

"No. Everything is fine," he shrugged. "Did you want to go over the new guidelines now or save it for another time?"

"I'd love to do it now, but in an hour, I have a meeting with my staff. Do you think we could get together later? I really think the sooner we have a firm grasp of what's expected, the sooner we can implement it."

"I agree. Later would be fine, but what time? I have to pick up Michael and then there's dinner."

"Well, I was thinking that maybe we could work over dinner. I have this huge kitchen and I still haven't broken it in, yet. I'd love to practice my culinary skills on you and Michael," she suggested as they stopped in front of her office.

"I couldn't impose on you like that."

"It wouldn't be an imposition," she told him. "I have a few Disney videos that could keep Michael busy while we're working. Really, AJ, I wouldn't mind at all."

"Okay," he agreed. "I'll have to check with Dawn and make sure she didn't have any plans for us, but if not, sure."



"So, is everything okay?" Dara asked as Dawn hung up her bedside telephone.

"I guess. AJ and Michael are having dinner with Keesha tonight," she answered, rolling onto her stomach as she lay beside her sister on the bed. She frowned slightly as she remembered the extra lilt to AJ's voice as he said Keesha's name. What the heck was that about, she wondered, and why wasn't she bothered by it.

"Hey, you. What's going on in there?" Dara asked, tapping Dawn on the forehead.

Dawn dodged her sister's finger and said, "Nothing really."

"Give me more credit than that. You were a little antsy when you first came in and you're not any better now. What's going on? Are you and AJ having problems?"

"I don't know," she grumbled, resting her head on her forearms as she closed her eyes. She breathed a heavy sigh which immediately concerned her sister.

"What do you mean you don't know? Either you are or you aren't. I told you before that moving in so soon after breaking up with Nikolas was a mistake-"

"Dara, please. AJ and I aren't living together. He's giving me a place to stay. And, as I've told you before, we're in separate rooms. Besides, it's not really AJ that's... Oh, never mind!" She flopped herself over onto her back and kept her eyes shut.

"Oh, don't stop now. What's up? Girl, come on, talk to me! Ned's got me on restriction and I could use a little excitement to liven things up some."

"So, you just want to feed off my distress, huh? Gee, thanks, Dara," Dawn laughed.

"Feed is such an inappropriate word. More like take an avid interest in," Dara grinned. She sobered when she noticed that the humor had left her sister's eyes and had been replaced by sadness. "Come on, baby girl. What's wrong?"

Dawn took a deep breath. Her eyes misted with unshed tears as she looked at her sister. "Do you think I'm a slut?"

"What?!" Dara exclaimed.

"Dara! Is everything okay?" Ned called from the nursery.

"Fine!" Dara reassured him. She'd forgotten he was upstairs, no doubt making sure that she didn't exert herself. She loved him for his over-protectiveness, but there were times when it made her want to scream, 'back off!' She never did, but sometimes, she really wanted to.

She decided that she and Ned would have to rework their compromise, but that would happen later. Right now, she had a younger sister to counsel. "Explain, please."

"Well, you remember what I told you about the pajamas and how we really did do the deed. And, we came close to doing it again the night I moved out..."

"Yeah, I remember. Are you telling me that you and Nikolas are still having sex?" Dara asked with a frown.

"No! Heck, no!" Dawn said, sitting up. "I haven't even really spoken to him since I moved out. We have a class together, but we don't talk or anything."

"Well, if it's not Nikolas, and you said you're not sleeping with AJ, then why do you think you're a slut? Have you been messing around?"

"No!" Dawn exclaimed and before Ned could say anything, she called out, "Everything's fine, Ned!"

"Good! Make sure it stays that way!" Ned told them.

Dara rolled her eyes at her husband's words and raised an eyebrow at Dawn. "Continue."

"Well," Dawn began after breathing a long sigh, "I've been having these dreams...about...Tommy. And, then after what happened today..."

"What happened today? I thought he was being your chauffeur. I didn't know he was supplying other services," Dara said. She tried to keep a straight face, but a chuckle escaped her.

"Ha, ha. Funn-nny," Dawn told her. She wanted to keep a straight face, but when Dara began to laugh, she did, too. "You're bad. I can see why Nedly has you restriction."

"I wouldn't go there if I were you," Dara warned her. "I may be on restriction, but at least, I'm not thinking about little high school boys."

"You must not have taken a good look at Tommy Hardy lately. He's not a little boy. He's a man..." she sighed softly as her eyes took on a faraway look.

"Mm hmm," Dara said, noting the dreamy look in Dawn's eyes. She'd seen her sister talk about Nikolas and then later about AJ, but she'd never seen her look quite as far gone as she looked now. Dawn had it bad, Dara realized. She decided not to comment on it and let her sister discover the reality on her own. Instead, she said, "Tell me about what happened today. Did you two kiss or...what?"

"No, but for a second, I wished we would have. It's just that we've been flirting a lot lately, and today it got really suggestive. What kind of person am I if I'm making suggestive comments to one man while living with another? Am I setting up some kind of pattern? Checking out one man while I'm with another...first with Nikolas and now with AJ. Maybe I *am* a slut," she groaned.

"A slut is a woman who's sexually promiscuous without any type of discrimination, and as far as I'm concerned, dreaming and flirting is not even comparable to screwing around," Dara told her. "Do you really want to know what I think?"

"I guess..." Dawn hedged. She knew her older sibling wouldn't mince her words and she took another deep breath to prepare herself for whatever Dara had to say.

"Don't be so melodramatic," Dara said, off Dawn's actions. "I think you're beating yourself up over nothing. Being attracted to someone doesn't make you a slut. I think you should ask yourself why you're so attracted to Tommy, and I'm not talking about his looks either. And, yes, I have noticed that he's not a little boy anymore. He's fine! I'm pregnant, not blind," she grinned. "Then, after you answer that question about Tommy, compare it to what drew you to AJ. If one outweighs the other, then you'll have the answer."

Dawn listened to Dara's words in silence. She took them all in and knew that her sister made perfect sense. She smiled at Dara and said, "Now, do you want to know what I think?"

"I guess..." Dara hedged.

"I think you're going to be a great mom." Dawn pulled Dara into a hug and gave her a loud kiss on the cheek. "I love you, big sis."

"I love you, too."

After Dawn said her good-byes and left, Ned came into the bedroom and sat down on the bed beside his wife. He took her slender hand within his own larger one and said, "She's right."

"About?" Dara asked, looking into his twinkling blue eyes.

"You. You're going to be a fantastic mother," he said. He leaned over and claimed her lips in a sweet, loving kiss. When he raised his head, he lightly stroked her cheek.

"I hope so," she said. "After the practice run with Brook Lynn, I had my doubts."

"I'm sorry about Brook Lynn," he said, resting his back against the pillows as he wrapped his arms around her shoulders and pulled her against him. "She's stuck in the middle of a two family home, and she acts out to get attention. She doesn't really mean to be a brat-"

"Ned, you don't have to defend her to me," Dara said as she lifted her head from his chest to look at him. "I understand what Brook Lynn is going through. My parents divorced, too, and when my father remarried, I wasn't as receptive as I should have been. Maybe my relationship with Brook is God's way of paying me back for the way I treated my stepmother."

"Ooh, you must have been *really* bad," he grinned.

"No comment," she answered before she joined in with his laughter.


"Hey, Em!"

Emily turned away from her locker to see Lucas standing behind her. She was irritated by his proximity, and in a harsher tone than she intended, she said, "Give me a little breathing room, okay?"

"Oh, yeah, sure," he said, backing away from her. He looked her up and down, enjoying how her faded jeans hugged her hips and thighs. His blue eyes shone with hunger when he finally made eye contact with her again.

Emily saw the look in his eyes and didn't like it. She moved to brush past him as she said, "See ya around, Lucas."

"Not so fast," he said, reaching for her arm. "I wanted to talk to you."

"You can talk to me without holding onto me. Let go of my arm," Emily told him.

"Okay," Lucas said, moistening his lips. He slowly loosened his hold on her arm and his hand trailed down the length of it before released it. He felt her shiver in response to his touch and he leered in response.

Growing uncomfortable as the seconds ticked by, Emily turned her back on him and began to move down the hall. She became a little afraid that he'd follow her and soon she was running. Her eyes were glued to the floor as she made her way down the almost deserted hallway. Her heart leapt to her throat when a pair of hands grabbed her. "Let go!" she yelled.

"Emily, wait! It's me!" Tommy said, letting go of her arms. He took in her frightened eyes and her heavy breathing. He glanced down the hall behind her and saw Lucas turn and go down another hallway. "Em, stay here," he told her before he handed her his backpack and took off down the hall after Lucas.

Tommy reached Lucas as he ran into the boys' locker room. He hadn't even broken a sweat in the chase, but Lucas could barely catch his breath. Tommy's temper was hanging by a thin thread as he said, "I *told* you to leave her alone!"

"You...don't...tell me what to do," Lucas panted. He glared at Tommy and said, "You think you're hot sh-, but you're not so hot. You're just full of yourself. Emily doesn't even want you anymore!"

"This has nothing to do with me and Em. This is about you bothering her! She's not interested!" Tommy bit out as he moved to stand over Lucas. "This is the last time I'm telling you, Lucas Jones. Leave her alone!"

Tommy emphasized his point by grabbing Lucas by the collar and lifting him from the ground so that they were eye to eye. "The very LAST time!" Tommy let Lucas go and stormed out of the locker room, slamming the large metal doors after him in his wake.

Lucas took a moment to catch his breath before he picked himself up off the floor. He brushed his jeans off and ran his hand through his blonde hair. He listened closely and only heard the sound of his own breathing. He was glad that no one witnessed how Tommy treated him. The last thing he'd want would be for Tommy's football buddies to pick on him, too.

He took a sip of water from the water fountain and then he went to the back of the locker room where the freshmen lockers were placed. He fumbled with his combination a few times before he got it right and then he swung the door open. He reached in the back, past his gym clothes, until he found what he was looking for. He pulled out the worn manila folder. His fingers were shaky as he released the metal clasps and opened the lid. He took a deep breath and then he reached his hand inside.

A broad smile spread across his face as his long cherished photo of Emily appeared before him. He'd heard rumors that the photo was a fake, and that it wasn't really her nude body, but he didn't care. Just the idea that it could be her, excited him to distraction. He pulled the photo completely out of the envelope, taking care not to smudge it or bend it. His eyes drifted over her likeness as he imagined how wonderful it would be to be with her. To be naked with her and show her how much he cared about her. "Soon," he whispered as he pressed a kiss to Emily's smiling, full lips. "Soon, we'll be together. I'll take care of Mr. Big Man on Campus and nothing and nobody will stand in our way."

Chapter 27