Thursday, September 2, 2010

Part Four

She sat up straight in bed, the pitch blackness surrounding her. It took a minute to realize she was alone in the bed. He wasn't there. She turned to check the bassinet on her other side, only to find it empty as well. Smiling to herself in anticipation, she slipped from the bed.

She padded quietly down the hall to Marly's room. As she approached, she could hear him engaging in this early morning ritual that he had begun shortly after Marly came home. This time he was reading Winnie the Pooh, voice soft and soothing. The last time she had heard him, it had been Oh, The Places You'll Go!.

She stood in the doorway watching him as he held their tiny daughter close, her head tucked in the crook of his elbow, pausing every paragraph or two to kiss her head or cheek. His hair was tousled from sleep and his chin was thick with stubble. She wondered if Marly liked the feel of his face against her sensitive skin, if she could smell her daddy's pleasant scent as she lay curled in his arms. She looked cherished and precious and so, so loved.

The chair rocked gently back and forth as he continued to read. He was reaching the end of the chapter, and as if on cue, Marlene began to wriggle in his arms, a sure sign that she was growing restless. Vanessa knew she was hungry, but watching this moment seemed too special to interrupt. He finished reading just as Marly began to whimper, and Bobby laughed softly and kissed her tiny head once more. "You're hungry, aren't you?" he whispered. "I can practically hear that tiny belly from here...we need to go find your mama." Just then his eyes caught Vanessa watching in the doorway. He smiled at her. "Look, Marly...your mama came to find you. I bet she knows you're hungry too."

"Mmm...I guessed correctly," she teased, taking his place in the rocking chair once he stood. She pulled off her tank top, taking the baby from him and beginning to nurse her. He pulled a chair up close to her, watching intently. She smiled at him. "What?"

He shook his head. "I'm just amazed...your body is an amazing thing."

"Eh, you're just jealous." Marlene was suckling eagerly, and she couldn't help but chuckle. "Slow down there, cowgirl...I promise I won't take it away."

He was resting his head in his hand, elbow on his knee. "I guess she's really hungry."

"Well, when you only eat a few ounces at a time..." She switched sides, and Marlene quickly latched on to continue. Vanessa glanced over at him. "You're like a voyeur or like to watch," she teased him, and he smiled again.

"I just think it's amazing. Your body can do amazing things. What can mine do, really? Nothing as cool as yours." He shook his head.

She ran a finger across the downy hair on top of her daughter's head. "Well, if it weren't for your body, my body would be limited in its abilities here." She paused, watching Marlene's closed eyes. "She's falling asleep again."

He placed the burp rag over his shoulder and motioned for Vanessa to hand the baby to him. She did, watching him firmly, carefully pat her back. He was so good with her, so gentle, that Vanessa often found herself watching him and wondering where he had picked it all up. She guessed it came from the books he read--that and an incredibly strong desire to be a good father.

He nodded toward the door. "I'm going to lay her back in the bassinet...are you going back to bed?"

She stretched. "Yes...I think for a little bit, anyway. It's not quite six." Standing, she followed him to the bedroom and climbed across the bed as he lay Marlene down. Vanessa held the covers for him. "Coming?"

He shook his head. "I need to go in anyway...I'd no sooner drift off than have to get up again." Leaning over, his lips gently grazed her forehead. "I'll see you tonight, though...I love you."

She watched him go into the bathroom and heard the shower start. Closing her eyes, she drifted back into a relaxing sleep.


Bobby was focused on the gun's muzzle pressed against the little girl's head. "Malcom, we--we can talk about this. Just...just let her go. You have me here. If you hurt her, there's no going back from that--"

"It's too late anyway!" His voice was shrill, panicked, and Goren could see his eyes darting quickly between the child in his grip, the body on the floor, and the two detectives facing him with guns drawn. "It's too late." The shrill lowered and turned griefstricken. "It wasn't supposed to happen like this."

Goren held his own hands up. "I know, Malcom. You loved your family. Look, I'm going to put down my gun, okay? I'll put down my gun. You let your daughter go with Detective Eames, and you and I can talk. Okay?" He kept his head bowed, but his eyes were focused on the perp. He didn't dare look at the little girl.

Malcom was sweating, shaking his head. "I don't know!" His grip tightened on the little girl.

"Malcom," Goren kept his voice low. "I just became a dad myself. Everyone knows you love your daughter. We can see it. You don't want to hurt her. You're a good father. Let her go with my partner...let her go somewhere safe. That's what good fathers--good fathers like me and you--that's what we do. We protect our kids. Let her go, Malcom."

Something he said seemed to resonate with the man, as Malcom suddenly caught his breath and seemed to relax a bit. "Okay..." His voice steadier, he spoke to his daughter softly. "Elena...Elena," his lip began to tremble, "go with the nice lady..." The child hesitated, and Malcom nudged her forward. When Elena still didn't move, he pushed her harder toward Eames.

"Go, Elena!" he yelled. The child began to cry as Eames grabbed her wrist and pulled her forward, wrapping her other arm around Elena and leading her quickly out of the room.

"Now we're alone," Goren said calmly. "You made a good choice for your've proven you're a good father."

"A good father," Malcom choked, "provides for his child. A good father doesn't lose his temper." The panic level in his voice began to rise again. "Have you ever lost everything you know? Failed to provide for your child?" He laughed bitterly, a hysterical edge to his voice. "Of course not," he said cynically. "You just became a father."

"You've provided well for her. It's not your fault that times are tough. She needs you though...she's going to need you..." Goren was slowly moving closer.

The shrill tone returned to Malcom's voice. "She'll never forgive me! Look at what I did to her mother!" He kicked the dead form at his feet.

"Malcom, listen to me--"

"No!" His eyes were lit with a frightening energy as he paced back and forth, parallel to his wife's body. "There is no explanation that will work for way to fix this..."

"She'll need to hear you explain...she still needs her father, no matter what." He was grasping for words, truthful words that would still make DeVry put down the gun. The truth was, there wasn't a way to fix this. Malcom had murdered the child's mother in cold blood. Taking an imperceptible breath, Goren took a step toward him and reached out a hand. "Give me the gun, Malcom. Don't make Elena lose two parents in one day." He was staring into Malcom's crazed eyes, holding himself steady, feeling the tightwire in his body that he always felt in situations like this. One misstep.... "She deserves better."

Malcom again steadied his breath and stilled his movements. "Yes," he said suddenly, devoid of emotion, "She does."

Goren lunged for the gun, not quite realizing he was too late even as the splatter of blood hit his shirt.

He sat patiently on the examination table, waiting for the doctor to finish writing his report. "Detective." The doctor handed a copy of his report to Goren. "You should be fine, but I want you to take a few days off. You don't have any injuries other than your hand. We'll get you set up with painkillers to help while you're recovering. And I'll refer you to an orthopedist."

Eames was right outside his door when the doctor left, and he watched him hand her the official copy of his medical report for Deakins. She took it and nodded, slipping it into her purse, before entering the room. "This is the best I could do," she told him as she handed him a polo shirt. "They didn't have anything else in the gift shop."

He nodded, then began to attempt to pull the shirt over his head, which was proving to be a bit more difficult than he had originally anticipated. With his hand set, he felt as though he was left with one feasible appendage, and a leftover paw. The fact that shirt was at least one size too small didn't help, but he wasn't about to complain. Eames reached over and gently tugged the shirt over his hand and he nodded at her. "Thanks."

"You okay?" she asked for the first time. He had seen her watching him closely, ever since he had left the house. Watching for some sort of sign as to whether or not he was blaming himself for Malcom DeVry's death. She knew him too well. He would have done the same for her.

He held out his hand and gave a wry smile. "Well, other than a fractured wrist from when I hit that gun, I'm fine."

She looked concerned. "Bobby, are you sure? And I don't mean about your wrist. You know, this was not your fault." She shook her head. "We saved that little girl. He would have killed her if you hadn't talked him down from it. That's a success in my book."

"Right, Eames," he responded, looking at his hand as though the bandage was fascinating. "Look, I'm not supposed to go back to work until Monday...if it's all right I'm going to get my prescription and go on home."

She looked stunned, if not hurt, but nodded. " you want me to drive you? You probably shouldn't be just wandering around wherever..."

"I'll be okay. You didn't call Vanessa, did you?"

"No," she replied, and he could tell from her tone that she was uncomfortable with his decision to keep this turn of events from his wife. "You said you would do that..."

He nodded. "Everything will be fine...tell Deakins I'll be back on Monday."

"Okay..." She left him alone, with only one suspicious glance over her shoulder.

He waited patiently until a young, attractive nurse brought his prescriptions to him. "Detective Goren, here you are," she said pleasantly, handing him the prescriptions. "I'm sorry it took a few minutes...we tend to get backed up sometimes. Now, just remember with this medicine, it's pretty heavy duty, so don't do any driving--" she smiled then, a pretty, flirtatious smile "--or gun practice."

He smiled, in an effort to be polite. "I think I'll be away from my gun for awhile."

"Yes...well, if you have any questions, you can call us at this number...and come back if the pain gets worse."

He nodded, smiling as she left the room, then picked up the bloody shirt and jacket. He tossed them in the trash and headed down the hallway to the elevator.

He didn't intend to press the up button, but his hand seemed to gravitate to it, and after just a moment of reluctance, he hit it quickly, as though it was a permanent commitment on his behalf. Twenty seconds later he found himself on the eating disorders unit and approached the nurse's desk.

Ava was in the day room, playing solitaire. A couple other younger women were in the same room; one was watching television and the other was reading a book. He approached her slowly, not even knowing why, feeling as though this was a bad idea but his feet...his feet had other ideas. Slowly he sunk into a chair across from her.

She glanced up at him, then did a double take. "Bobby, what the hell are you doing here? Where's my sister? Is she okay?" She caught sight of his hand. "What happened to you?"

"I thought I could stop something...he almost put it down...I misjudged it." His eyes slowly met hers. "I thought...and now she has nobody...and I almost think it's better for her."

"I have no idea what the fuck you're talking about," Ava confessed, "but you look like shit."

"Ava," he said softly, drawing abstract designs on the table with a finger from his good hand, "what if I turn out to be another Ryan? Another Frank? Another Malcom? What if...what if Marlene is better off without me too?"

She sat back in her chair, shuffling the cards in her hands, and blew out a long breath of air. "You must have really been through something this morning. Let me tell you something, Bobby. You may be a lot of things, but you will never, ever be Ryan." She continued to shuffle the cards haphazardly as she spoke. "I've seen you with the baby. Bad dads don't act the way you do. Marlene is one lucky kid. And Vanessa is lucky too. You talk with her all the time. She can tell you anything. Did you know that? Anything. Do you know how rare that is? For whatever reason, she trusts you. And to gain trust from a Rayden woman...that's a rare feat." She shook her head. "I wish David and I could do that."

He was staring at her, but she had the keen feeling he wasn't anywhere nearby. "He killed his wife. He had lost his job and he killed his wife. His daughter was next...we got her out...I thought I could talk him down."

Ava leaned forward, cards sandwiched in between her hands. "I hate to break it to you, Bobby, but you can't win 'em all. And you don't sound anything like this guy, whoever he is." She went back to sorting her cards for another game of solitaire. "Go home to your wife. Tell her about your day. Ask her if she has any worries about you failing as a husband or father. Because you're like me. Your biggest critic is yourself."

He pushed the chair back, then took another look at her. "You're looking healthier," he said. "Good for you."

She snorted. "I'm trying. Now go home." She shooed him with her hand, turning back to her game, and he stood and left, feeling a bit more confident in himself, and a bit more ready to talk with his wife.

Vanessa had just laid Marlene down again when she heard the front door open and shut. She could feel the adrenaline beginning to rush through her. It was two in the afternoon, and Bobby always called if he was coming home early. Breathe, she reminded herself. There's no way anyone could have gotten past the front desk downstairs. But then all of the possibilities for how that could happen began invading her brain, and impulsively she silently shut the bedroom door and locked it, then grabbed her cell.

The rap on the door startled her. "'s me." She unlocked the door and yanked it open, seeing him standing there in a polo shirt two sizes too small and his dress pants.

"What the hell?" She tugged at the front of the shirt as he stepped into the room, then caught sight of his hand. "Oh my God, Bobby...what happened? What's going on?"

He reached up with his good hand and touched her hair. "I'm fine...everyone is fine...I was a bad morning."

"I'll say. What the hell happened to you?"

He motioned to the bed, sitting down heavily himself. She joined him, then asked, "What is it?"

"A hostage situation," he began, and immediately winced at his detective jargon. "Except we didn't know it when we got there...he had already killed his wife. We heard the shots from outside the door." He continued to explain the story, watching Vanessa's eyes widen in horror and then close in sadness. As he finished explaining the suicide, she opened her eyes again. "And your hand?"

"Just a fractured wrist...I lunged for the gun but I missed...hit his wrist and the barrel harder than I anticipated."

She reached over and touched his face gently. "I'm so sorry, Bobby. That poor kid...but you did all you could. She'll remember that." She could read his expression, one full of doubt, and she said firmly, "You need to remember that."

"I'm trying...I really am." His eyes closed, willing the tears not to come but he felt them anyway, felt the helplessness of standing so close and being unable to stop Malcom DeVry from taking his own life. He had tried, had moved as quickly as he could, but it just hadn't been fast enough. He thought of how, when he had exited the house, little Elena had been with the paramedics. When he had walked over to her, she had said, "Mister...where's my dad?"

"He can't come right now," he had said, kneeling to her level. "I'm so sorry, Elena."

Her tiny lips had trembled before saying, "I want my mama. Can you help her? Please?"

The tears rolled down his face now, and he could feel Vanessa's hands on his cheeks, stroking his tears away, then her lips settling on his mouth, warm and familiar. "You're a good cop," she whispered, slipping her body into his lap. His eyes stayed closed but he ran his hand over her back slowly, firmly, confirming her presence. "And an incredible husband." She kissed his eyelids softly, then willingly complied as he pressed her body closer to his own. "And an amazing daddy." Her voice had dropped to a whisper and she held his face still. "Look at me," she commanded softly, and his eyes slowly opened to take her in. "Don't you doubt that. Don't you ever doubt how amazing you are, Robert Goren."

His eyes held hers for a few precious seconds before he closed them again, pulling her lips into his for a slow, deep kiss. She wrapped her body tighter around his, opening her mouth and touching his tongue with her own. He sat passively, lost in the sensation, until the memory of Malcom's last seconds came back to him--then, in an effort to erase it, he caught her head with his hand, holding her still, plunging his own tongue into her mouth. Tasting her, needy, running his tongue against hers, sliding along her teeth, tangling. She began to pull away but he groaned softly, an effort to communicate his need, and she was placated. She stayed in his lap, receiving his kiss. He left her mouth and moved to her cheek, her neck, her ear, sucking and nipping. She could feel his tears against her face as he kissed and stroked her.

He always said she was his everything, and he knew it was true as he slid his lips over her face and neck. She tasted like sweetness and sex, everything contradictory, and he wanted more of her. From the first time they had made love, he had known he was lost to her. Everything familiar and everything foreign, all things comforting and all things exciting were encompassed in her, and he wanted to feel her body against his. Her breasts were pressed firmly against his chest; he could feel her hardened nipples brushing his chest through their clothing and he held her tightly, afraid to let her go.

His erection pressed against her belly and she knew where this was leading. She knew her husband, knew his propensity for vulnerability, impulsivity, and guilt. It hadn't been long enough since the baby's birth, and they were supposed to wait for another week. Despite his need and desire, she knew he'd never forgive himself if they discarded the doctor's advice. "Bobby--" she pulled away slightly. He was reticent to let her go, eyes still closed, lips pressed against her neck, hand on the back of her head. She put both hands on his shoulders and forcibly pushed him back several inches. "Look at me."

His eyes slowly opened and the pain she saw almost took her breath away. She knew the words before he said them.

He couldn't help it. This routine of his, the need to apologize for his most primitive desires always seemed to rear its head. "I'm sorry...I'm so sorry...this isn't appropriate...I know..."

She pressed a finger against his lips. "Hush. You haven't done anything wrong." Her hand slipped in between them, resting on the zipper of his trousers. She could feel the thickness of his erection and he sighed heavily. He needed to leave the room, to get back in his right mind.

"I'm gonna go make some lunch," he said, trying to disentangle himself, but she refused to move, caressing him through his pants.

"No." She leaned over and brushed her lips on his temple. "We can't have sex, but you're not going anywhere...not yet. Not until you've let me comfort you." Her words stilled him, and he sat patiently, wondering what her next move would be. She pulled the polo off slowly, moving her mouth only to kiss him. Both of her hands moved to the buttons on his trousers, unbuttoning and unzipping slowly, her eyes focused on him, her lips caressing his softly every few seconds.

She had expected him to object. That would be typical for him, always the gentleman, protecting her from his pain or anything that might remotely resemble him taking advantage of her. But he didn't. He needed this, needed her, needed the confirmation that she loved him as a husband, as a man, as her man. He couldn't turn away from her. As she slid his zipper down and slipped one hand through his boxers, his mouth opened slightly, then his eyes closed. She kissed the tears as they fell and ran her thumb gently over the tip of him, rubbing gently.

His eyes didn't open, but the words were soft and loving. "I love you...I--I need you...I don't want to let you down..." A million more raced through his addled brain, still buzzed from the shot of Percocet they had given him at the hospital along with the traumatic events of the morning. But that was all that he got out. He choked on the rest.

"You never let me down." She gently edged him back on the bed, straddling his body. "You're the best thing thing ever happened to Marly...and I love you..."

Her lips trailed down his neck slowly, peppering him with soft kisses as she pulled on his chest hair, then slowly attached her mouth to one hard, flat nipple. As she sucked, her other hand stroked his abdomen randomly, touching and pulling and rubbing. She glanced up at him; his eyes were closed, both hands above his head, mouth slightly open. He was letting her care for him, something he rarely did, and the realization hit her hard in the heart.

He felt so protected, so accepted by this woman. This woman who knew almost all of his secrets, who never judged him. This woman who had carried his child, whom he slept with and ate with and worked with and made love with. Who was now wiping his tears away and trying desperately to comfort and chase away his fears.

She heard him sigh softly and took her cue to move down his body further, nipping tiny bites along his hips and stroking the thick hair under his navel. He felt surrounded in her warmth and pleasure as her mouth moved slowly, sweetly, over his body, stimulating his tactile senses into overdrive. Her fingers tangled themselves in the material of his boxers, pulling them off quickly and freeing his erection. He looked beautiful, vulnerable, and she whispered, "I love you so much, much, sweetie..."

Her hand was encircling him loosely, touching him, feeling him twitch in her hand and hearing his soft sighs and moans. She knew what he was going to say before it left his lips, and as soon as he started--

"You don't have to do--"

she leaned up and caught his words with her lips. "I only do what I want to," she assured him softly, hand tightening around him. His eyes had flown open, not expecting her kiss, but he nodded slightly, then lay his head back again as she moved down his body. They rarely engaged in this; he always feared the psychological effect it had on her. But the look of determination in her eyes combined with his own need had made him lay back and close his eyes without any more objection.

She rarely did this for him and he still never asked. She didn't think she'd ever see the day that he would ask her for what he truly wanted, knowing how difficult it was for her to give it. He just didn't have that kind of entitlement in him. But he needed her, needed to know he was loved and cherished in a way beyond words, and he needed an escape. She stroked the tip of him once more before slipping him into her mouth, focusing on letting him relieve his pain, his guilt, his sadness with this act.

She heard him groan immediately. She ran her fingers over him, down his shaft and between his legs, as she moved her lips up and down slowly. If she was going to do this, it would be good for him. She always made sure it would be memorable when she did, and he always assured her it was nothing short of amazing. She imagined what he was thinking, and found herself hoping that his mind wasn't focusing on anything but the feelings he had in his body.

As soon as her mouth had met the tip of his cock, he had lost his breath. He would never admit it to anyone, but his deepest fantasy with her was this, her loving him this way, and him being able to protect her, make her feel safe enough that she never felt the repulsion he knew she held deep inside. That all she felt in this was how much he loved her, how much he wanted her, how much he needed to be joined with her. The pleasure seeping through his every pore, the pleasure that clouded his brain and made it difficult to think past the thought of, "God yeah, she's sucking on my cock." Past the thought that he knew would cause him tremendous guilt later.

His hips shifted restlessly under her, and she knew he was trying desperately not to thrust upward. She moved her hand away from him and stroked his hip as if to reassure him, then increased her pace and intensity. He groaned, and she could hear him. "Beth...Beth...I'm so sorry...I need you ...I need this...I'm so sorry..."

She pulled herself away from him once more. "Bobby..." she gasped, hand replacing the friction her mouth had been providing, "stop apologizing...I don't want you to feel sorry, ever...I want you to feel good..." She pressed her other hand to his chest, over his heart, pulling herself up slightly and nipping the skin on his belly. "Do you feel good?"

She could see the tears glistening on his face, but his whisper came back, "yes...God yes..."

"Then stop being ashamed of being human...can you do that? Do that for me?"

His body shifted, almost a physical reflection of his internal struggle. She leaned down and sucked the tip of him gently for a short moment. "Can you?"

His good hand fell to her hair, stroking it softly. "Yes...yes...I can...I'll try, baby..." She enveloped him fully again, hearing him gasp, before he whispered, "I'll try...God...oh God..."

He was holding himself back the very best he could. Every impulse he had was screaming to buck forward forcefully, to drive into her. His mind wandered for a millisecond, wondering how she would respond if he gave way to his desire, but he pushed it away almost as quickly. He opened his eyes and glanced down at her, moving back and forth on him, and the image imprinted itself on his brain. He closed his eyes again, seeing her over and over again in his head, feeling the depth of his orgasm rising from his spine, his thighs, his entire groin.

His hand stayed entangled in her hair and she released her grip on his hips, feeling him slightly rock forward in sheer pleasure. The fact that he was so excited pleased her immensely, and she continued her pace.

In her mind's eye, Forrester was shoving himself into her mouth, hot and sweaty, demanding her to "suck it"...

She pushed the thought aside viciously, returning to the present. He was moaning, rocking gently, hand in her hair, and she heard him. "Beth...Beth...too close..."

She continued the pressure and speed, determined not to back down because of Forrester, determined to pleasure her husband, determined to comfort him how he needed to be comforted. He couldn't focus on anything but this beautiful woman, his wife, his. Nobody else's. His. She loved him this much. He could be loved. This much.

"Bitch!" She could feel the vomit coming out of her mouth, her nose, before the boot landed her on the floor, helpless.

She pulled up from Bobby for a moment, catching her breath; his eyes flew open. He gasped at her, "Stop, don' don't need to do this--" but she ignored him, covering him once more, coaxing him quickly back into a rhythm.

" don''s okay...I don't...oh God..." And it was upon him before he could move, think, breathe anymore. The spasms shot from his spine to his thighs to his cock, shaking his body, rocking through him with a blinding force that emptied his brain of any cognition whatsoever. There was no thinking. There was only her, and this. This. Her loving him.


And who said women had no power over men, she thought, as he arched and groaned, spilling himself fully into her. His hand was still in her hair, flexing tight and loose, until finally his hips relaxed and she released him gently.

"So good," he was whispering. "So, so good...I love you so much...I need you more than air...I needed you never let me down...nobody's ever loved me like you..." his voice was breaking on the words, and she leaned up and kissed him slowly, softly. He embraced her, stroking her face with his fingers, his whispered words landing on her lips. "You'll never know how much I love you."

He could taste himself on her, in her mouth and on her lips, a sensual reminder of how much she loved him. He was humbled and pleased and aroused at the same time. He'd never known anyone more beautiful. His hands moved to caress her breasts gently, but after a moment she moved away from him. "They're a little sore," she explained softly, "and I need to go brush my teeth--"

He nodded, but lay still as she went into the bathroom.

Once inside, she closed the door and sat down to pee, then washed her hands and began to brush her teeth. The memories of Forrester seemed farther away now, and she closed her eyes as if to shut him out. She wondered if the day would ever arrive that he would be completely gone. Probably not, she realized as she began to rinse. But she was damned if he was going to ruin anything between her and her husband.

She opened the door to find him in a pair of running shorts, sitting in the armchair, holding Marlene. The baby was still asleep, and he smiled shyly at Vanessa.

"I...I just needed to hold her," he explained softly.

She nodded, sitting on the corner of the bed across from him. "I understand. She's like sweet candy...good for the soul."

She heard him exhale, a relieved sigh, and gazed down at his daughter. Family really could be the best medicine, she thought to herself.

Bobby was asleep in their bed, stretched out and having fitful dreams. He had taken the painkillers before drifting off. The shot of percoset they had given him in the hospital was wearing off, and his wrist was throbbing.

He awoke to Vanessa sitting next to him, gently shaking his shoulder. "Bobby...Eames is here...she brought dinner and wants to check on you."

"Huh?" His brain was fuzzy from the meds.

"Eames, baby...she's here and wants to see you. Are you up to it?"

"Yeah," he muttered sleepily, rubbing his eyes and then sitting up fully. Vanessa handed him a tee shirt and he slid it on before following her into the living room.

Alex was sitting in his favorite chair, holding Marlene. She smiled when she saw him. "Hey," she said softly. "Just wanted to check on my partner and see how you were doing."

He sat down on the couch, near the chair. "I'm okay. The painkillers are just making me a bit fuzzy is all."

She nodded. "I've given the official report to Deakins. He'll call you tomorrow but he said to take care of yourself." She paused for a moment. "He's going to want you to see a shrink before you come back. Departmental policy."

"I know."

"The ME has already finished her report. Everything was by the book, Bobby. There was nothing anyone could have done."

He didn't know why she kept telling him this. It wasn't as if he didn't hear her the first time. "I know, Eames."

"Elena DeVry is with her aunt and uncle...they live in Manhattan too, and child protective services was able to get up with them quickly. I thought you might rest better, knowing that she's with family."

He closed his eyes, seeing the tiny lips trembling and hearing her voice. Please, she had asked him, please bring her back her mama. He shook his head, then felt a hand catching his. It was Vanessa, and she was tracing his fingers.

"That's good," Vanessa told Eames. "She's been through a lot's probaby best for her to be with her family right now."

Eames nodded. "She never even asked about her father...just kept asking if we could make her mom any better." She sighed heavily, the looked down at Marlene sleeping in her arms. "If we never have to experience another day like this, it would be too soon for me."

"I'm pretty tired," he interrupted then, feeling his head swimming with the medication mixed with the memories of the day's events still too close to the surface. "If you don't mind, I'm going to head back to bed."

Eames was watching him with a skeptical look, but she nodded anyway. "Glad you're feeling okay...I guess I'll see you on Monday."

Vanessa stood when he did. "Eames brought dinner...I'll bring you some in a bit. Chinese."

He shook his head. " offense, Alex...just not hungry. I'm going to sleep, if that's okay."

He turned and headed back to the bedroom, hearing Elena DeVry's plea in his ears and wishing more than anything he could shut it out.


She was lying in bed next to him, in her typical tank and boxers, watching his face. He shut his eyes once more and opened them, making sure he was awake.

"Hey," she whispered. "You finally woke up."

"What time is it?"

"Three a.m."

"Oh." He ran his good hand through his hair. "Why are you awake?"

She smiled. "Two a.m. actually was more like two-thirty this time."

He peered over her, looking at the baby in the bassinet sleeping soundly. "She's out," he commented.

"Like her dad...they weren't kidding about that medication."

"No...I guess not." He rolled onto his back, staring at the ceiling. After a couple of quiet minutes, he said, "Elena DeVry had dark brown eyes, long brown you...I wondered what it was like for you, to find your mother..."

"I was older...and she committed suicide..."

"That little girl will be scarred for life. There's no amount of therapy that can fix something like that. I couldn't lie. I couldn't tell him she could be fixed."

Vanessa propped her head up in her hand. "And you think that would have stopped him?"

He was silent for a moment. "Maybe."

"Huh." She ran one finger along his shoulder. "It's doubtful. He was determined to kill his entire family, including himself. You saved the kid. If you hadn't been there, there would have been three dead bodies today."

He started to argue but she stopped him. "Look. I studied this stuff in school. I know you're a great profiler, Goren, but you're not the most objective person, particularly in a case like this, one that you're involved in. What, did you think about Marly during it? Me?" When he didn't answer her, she said, "You saved a six-year old today. Because of you, she still has a life."

He watched her, her finger running back and forth over his shoulder, her soft lips parted, her dark eyes staring into his. "Why did you do it today?" he asked her, and she knew what he meant.

"Because," she replied, "because I wanted to be there for you."

His finger trailed up and caught hers. "You didn't need to..."

"I know that. I told you, I did it because I wanted to, because it would help you, because I love you and I wanted you to know how much. In that moment, when you were hurting so badly...I wanted to connect with you so you knew you weren't alone."

Their index fingers were intwined, gently touching. She knew what he was going to say. He was going to apologize, to ask if it hurt her in any way, reiterate that he never expected her to do that, that he loved her no matter what. But this time he surprised her; instead of giving her a long explanation of all the reasons she should never give him oral, he just whispered, "Thank you." And there was a peace about him, that for the first time he had been able to accept her gift, and was willing to let go of his guilt and shame for wanting what he felt he didn't have a right to ask for.

And she nodded at him and smiled shyly. "You're welcome," she told him, then pressed her head to his chest, determined to catch a little more sleep before Marlene woke again.

Never in a million years had he anticipated sitting across from Lydia Frye. She had a reputation in the department, much like he did--strong-willed, determined, unyielding--and she was the first shrink who could get him in. So Deakins had made the arrangements.

Vanessa had laughed at him. Literally. Laughed at his nervousness, his hesitancy. "Heh. Lydia, huh? Remember when I told her to kiss my ass? When I told her to shut the fuck up and that she was fired?"

He grunted over his bagel and coffee as she shifted Marlene to her other breast, still chuckling. "She's great. If it weren't for her I'd still be a freaking mess." She took a sip of her own coffee, decaf, and clarified, "Well, you and her, anyway."

"Skoda would have been a better fit," he grumbled.

She knew he was nervous, afraid of confronting his own demons, and more demons than just those that appeared the other day. "Bobby," she said confidently, "you only like Emil Skoda because he's a here and now kind of guy that you can run circles around. Give Lydia a chance. Besides, it's not her job to dig deep and make you confess all your innermost thoughts. Just to deal with what happened the other day. And to make sure you're in psychological shape to go back on the job." She rested Marly on her shoulder and began to pat her firmly. "I, for one, am thankful for that."

He snorted. "I'd prefer to undergo your special brand of therapy."

"What?" she said, confused as to what he meant, until she saw the snarky grin behind his coffee cup. Remembering the other afternoon, she snapped, "Very funny!"

He had laughed out loud, relieving some of his own tension, finally sitting back in his chair. "I love you...and I appreciate everything you do for me, baby."

She stuck her tongue out at him before laying Marly back in her seat and buckling her in. "You'll be fine, Goren. Suck it up."

"I appreciate your confidence in me." He finished his coffee, then leaned to kiss the baby. "Bye, my sweet girl." Standing next to Vanessa, he kissed her gently too. "Bye, my not-so sweet girl."

"Have fun. Say hi for me."

Now he was looking at Lydia, face to face, with an awkward smile, unsure of what to say. He wondered if she even remembered that they had met. The last time he had seen her had been, when? Right after he and Vanessa were married? They had come in for a session together. To talk about her father, ironically enough. The thought made him throw up a little in his mouth. He swallowed the bile down and continued to smile.

"So, how long has it been, detective? A couple years, right?" Yep, she remembered.

He cleared his throat. "Uh, yeah...something like that...right after Vanessa and I were married. She said to tell you hello, by the way."

Lydia smiled. "She's one of my favorite people. Please return the greeting. I heard through the grapevine that the two of you recently became parents. Congratulations."

"Thanks, thank you." His knee was bouncing up and down. He had probably spent half of his life with his damn knee bouncing around and never knew it until Vanessa had pointed it out to him. He wished she had never done that.

"So," Lydia interlaced her fingers and rested her hands on top of her knee. "I understand we're here to discuss an incident that occurred earlier in the week, correct?"

He nodded. "Yeah...there was a partner and I arrived on scene and the suspect had already killed his wife...he was about to kill his daughter--she's six--when we came in."

She nodded. "I read the report. Why don't you tell me about what you've been thinking about since?"

"What I've been thinking about?" he croaked.

"Yes. Any thoughts going through your head...for example, some officers will have nightmares about what they witnessed. Others will have irrational fears regarding family members. Still others may have fantasies of harming other people. All are typical responses. How about you?"

He laughed awkwardly. "Um...I don't know....I guess...I guess I've been thinking about being a good father, maybe. And how hard life is going to be for Elena...that was the little girl." He stopped, losing himself in the memory of her tear-stained face. "Elena, yes. That was it."

Lydia sat quietly for a moment. "Elena has been on your mind."

"Mmm." He turned back to her suddenly. "Yes. She reminded me of my wife." He looked down. "Made me think of Vanessa....made me think about her finding her mom. Her bastard father." He looked back up at Lydia, who was holding her face rather still, focused on listening to him. "Do you know Ava is in the hospital? Anorexia. It's pretty severe...they thought she might die a couple of months ago. We weren't sure she'd survive to see Marlene. And what did Ryan do? Left. The bastard left. Stopped coming to see her." He laughed bitterly. "Bastard showed up at our house trying to give Vanessa a gift...a baby gift. I guess he decided he blew it with one kid so he'd pick up with the other." He shook his head. "You know, I understand Ava a lot better than I ever cared to admit...she's got this 'fuck life' thing going on...I've been there, I know...after I got hurt the other day I went to see Ava. Before I even went home. Before I told my wife. I don't know why I did that. Vanessa sees me, gets me, and I love her more than I ever thought possible, but there's something about Ava...I don't know what it is. Like I don't have to try so hard to protect her. Like there's not the same level of responsibility. I guess because there's not the same commitment. I knew she'd understand and she did. She heard how fucked up it all was. Then she sent me home to my wife."

Lydia nodded. "And how did Vanessa respond?"

"She was wonderful...supportive and kind, everything you'd want your wife to be..." He hesitated, unsure of exactly how much he wanted to share. "She's the best thing that's ever happened to me...and Marly, I just held her, watched her." His knee stopped bouncing for a minute and he smiled. "I read to her every morning...after her five o'clock feeding...she loves it, she curls right up to me...I don't know how he lost that connection with his child." He looked up at Lydia, searching her face. "Do you think people can lose that? Or is it something they just never had? I've been looking for it in my mother for forty years and sometimes I think it's there, other times I think it never dad never had's such a different level of connection....he had that gun muzzle right against her temple. Who does that to their child? Who loves their child and can hold a gun up against their head like that?"

Lydia sat back. "What do you think will happen if you don't figure these things out?"

He stared at her, perplexed by the question, before finally rubbing his hands on his jeans. "I don't know. But I guess...I guess it might stand to reason...well, if DeVry said he loved his daughter and could turn like that..." He shuddered.

She cocked her head. "So you think this is universal? For instance, it can happen to anyone, anywhere, at any time? Parents who formerly loved their children just stop? Reasoning goes awry? Connection gets lost?"

His shoulders slumped. "Maybe."

"So what would need to happen for you to stop loving your daughter?"

"What? Nothing!" He shook his head aggressively. "Nothing could ever change that."

"But it's your fear."

He stopped moving, frozen, thinking of his tiny baby girl, of his wife and his child and his commitment to love, honor, and cherish. Head low, he could hardly hear his own voice through the shame. "Yes." He cleared his voice, raised his head to look Lydia in the eye, his own eyes clouded by tears. "Yes," he repeated, a little louder.

She nodded shortly. "Fear doesn't have to be rational, and it also doesn't predict the future, detective." She stood, walking over to a desk in the back of the room and picking up a pen, wrote several words on a piece of paper. Turning around, she moved closer to him and handed it over. "I've cleared you to go back on Monday. But I'd like to see you here every Tuesday morning, nine a.m. Your captain will take care of it for you."

He took the paper from her, reading it quickly. "I need to come back, huh?"

She smiled wryly at him. "Are you really surprised?"

They were lying on the bed when he got home, both on their backs, Vanessa tickling Marlene's belly. The baby squirmed lightly, and Vanessa's hand stilled on her for a few seconds before moving again until Marlene squirmed. "Okay, Marly, I'll stop," he heard her say, and she leaned over and kissed the baby gently by her ear.

"Hey," he said, tossing his jacket on the armchair.

"Oh! Hey." She sat up carefully, trying not to upset the baby. "We were just playing."

He reached over and scooped Marlene up, quickly nuzzling her close to him. "I missed you guys. Oh, Lydia says hello."

Vanessa crossed her legs. "Well, that's nice. How'd it go?"

"I have to go back."

She grinned. "Did you really expect anything less?"

He sat down in the chair. "You sound like Lydia."

"Well, it's not by accident...I'm in the same profession." She stood up and reached around him, grabbing his jacket, then going to hang it in the closet. "Oh, by the way," she winked at him, "I think she needs changing."

"Maybe," he said noncommittally. "Don't worry, Meg, I think you smell sweet as roses."

"Yeah, even her baby poop smells sweet...just wait til she starts eating real food. We'll see how sweet she smells then!"

He snorted and threw a pillow at her. She caught it, threw her body back on the bed, and laughed.

They entered the garden together with Marlene swaddled close to Vanessa's body. The snugli had been a shower gift from Eames' sister Liz, and Vanessa had swooned over it from the moment she opened it. She had wanted one but just not gotten around to picking one out. It held Marly close to her, keeping her warm and comfortable, and made nursing less conspicuous. No matter what she said about its benefits, though, she couldn't convince Bobby to wear it. She had explained it was unisex and how Marlene would love it for him to carry her like that; how it would keep his arms from getting fatigued and he would have his hands free to do other things. After looking at her like she was crazy, he had raised one eyebrow and said, "Thanks, but I'm gonna pass." So she used the snugli and he used his arms. But today was a cooler October day, so the baby had gone in the snugli and Bobby had gone without holding his little girl.

Ava was already on the swing, waiting for them, and David and Justin were playing in the sandbox a few feet away. The garden was beautiful and on hospital grounds. After much discussion, Bobby and Vanessa had agreed the garden would be the safest way to have Marly visit her aunt, rather than hauling her into a hospital again.

As soon as they entered the gate, Justin ran to Bobby. "Hey Bubby! I gotted anothah twuck!" he exclaimed excitedly, pointing to the sand. David waved to them, and Bobby swung Justin up and carried him back to the sandbox.

Vanessa settled on the swing next to her sister.

" got something in there for me?" Ava teased, pulling the top part of the snugli away, displaying Marly's sleepy face. "I thought you did." She ran one finger along the baby's cheek, watching Marlene sleepily open her mouth and move toward her finger. "Hungry much?" They both laughed, and Vanessa adjusted herself to nurse.

"So, she's getting better start thinking about college. It will be here before you know it."

"Like hell," Bobby said, sitting on a bench next to them. "She's got lots of time before she's that big."

Ava snorted. "Less than you think. Look at Justin...kindergarten already." She shook her head, a wistful smile on her face. Suddenly her expression crumpled and she began to cry, covering her face with her hand. "It just goes so fast...and I'm missing it. I'm missing everything. Today he came here...and he told me...he told me he can read his name. And write it. When the hell did he get that old? Yesterday he was toddling around my living room running his trucks into my feet, and now he reads and writes his name?"

Vanessa and Bobby looked at each other. Six months ago they both would have laughed at her, but now...

"I know," Vanessa told her. "Just this morning Bobby was saying she's lost her newborn look and looks like a real baby now." She put an arm around Ava. "Of course, I was glad, because newborns tend to be...well...not very attractive..."

Ava sniffled. "True." She wiped her nose on the back of her hand, and Vanessa made a mental note to keep Ava from touching Marlene. Fortunately, Bobby handed her a handkerchief and some hand sanitizer. She looked at him skeptically, then said, "Prepared for everything, aren't you?"

He smiled wryly. "Comes with the territory, apparently."

She sniffed again before blowing her nose in the handkerchief. "You're just afraid I'll contaminate your baby." She offered the dirty handkerchief back to him, but he shook his head. "For the love of all things holy, Robert, we're family. I won't give you the anorexia cooties. Jesus." She grabbed him by the belt loop and shoved the handkerchief back in his pocket.

If the familiarity of her actions bothered Vanessa, she never showed it. Bobby, however, felt as though he were on display. This was the closest another woman's hands had been to his cock in a long time. He felt his ears turn red, and took a seat a bit farther away on the bench.

Ava had already turned back to Vanessa and was admiring the baby again. "She's starting to look more like you," she said to no one in particular.

" or Bobby?"

She grinned and looked up. "Both."

"So how's the therapy going? You look like you're doing well."

"Eh, gained a little...I'm up to about ninety-five. They want me to be at a hundred and sustain it for awhile before they let me go." She sighed and picked a loose hair off her tee shirt. "I'm going to have to eat a house in order to gain that much weight."

Vanessa bit her tongue, hard. "You'll do it," she finally managed. "It's just a step at a time, right?" She fiddled with the top of the snugli. "You'll be fine."

Ava looked away, to the sandbox, watching David and Justin pouring sand through a sifter. "Right. Fine."

They all sat in uncomfortable silence for several more minutes, until Vanessa and Bobby said their goodbyes and headed back to the car, to Manhattan, leaving David and Justin still playing in the sand and Ava alone on the swing again.

Vanessa was laying the baby down in the bassinet when he found the handkerchief again that night, still wedged in his jeans pocket. He held it for a moment, remembering Ava's movements. He felt guilty, wondering if his little detour a couple weeks before had led her to think they were closer than he intended. If he needed to come clean to his wife. But what did he have to come clean about? Talking to her sister without her presence? It seemed like a strange thing to bring up out of the blue.

"You keep fingering that thing I'm going to start thinking there's something going on between the two of you."

He spun around to see her smiling slyly at him. He knew it was too late to mask his expression because hers had already changed, just like that. Seeing the look on her face--a cross between concern and fear--he fumbled to find some words. "She, uh, she stuck it in-in my pocket today...I was, uh...just uncomfortable for me..." He looked at her helplessly. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean anything by it."

She was biting her lip, arms crossed, an expression he couldn't read all over her face. After a minute, she asked, "Are you going to wash it, or hang on to it for posterity's sake?"

As if shocked by electricity, he quickly tossed it into the hamper, then began disrobing for bed.

She climbed across the mattress and curled up under the comforter, then peeked over the edge of the bassinet. As she lay back in the bed, she sighed. "I'm tired...I never thought I'd be in bed at ten on a Saturday night."

He climbed into bed next to her, leaning down to kiss her gently. She was soft and warm, and it had been the right amount of time. One hand cupped her face gently while the other wandered slowly and purposefully over her body. He heard her sigh softly at his touch, and he slipped his tongue into her mouth more fully, hoping she could sense how much he loved her, wanted her and only her. He groaned in the back of his throat, deep and low, as her tongue touched his and her fingers ran over his bare back, down his spine. After a slow movement down her body, he settled his hand between her legs, slipping one finger inside her soft, wet opening.

"Bobby," she gasped, reaching both hands up to cup his face. Her eyes met his and she smiled at him, a knowing look, as she tangled her fingers in his hair. She closed her eyes and pressed her forehead against his for a moment, then pulled her face away and looked at him. "I told you, I'm tired tonight."

He sighed and pulled away, the first time he could ever recollect being so assertively rebuffed by her, and roughly tossed himself on his back, pulling the covers up to his chest.

"And by the way," she added, leaning toward him. "If you're that uncomfortable with another woman's hands being within squeezing distance of your johnson, you should say something next time." With that, she kissed his temple and rolled over.

Five minutes later she was snoring softly, and he was cursing himself for her being so right.

Lydia sat across from him and crossed her legs. She was well put together in a white blouse and a black pencil skirt, finished off with black patent heels. He couldn't help but think how much she reminded him of Ava, not a hair out of place. How similar she looked to so many of the women he had dated before Vanessa, all incredibly well put together, like himself, a facade of organization and professionalism worn like a mask every day. How different she was from Vanessa and Eames and his mother, who lived their lives on their faces and their bodies, who could clean up well but chose only special occasions to do so. For just a moment he wondered how he ended up with a wife so different from him. Oh yeah, he remembered. She loves me.

Lydia was smiling at him, stirring her tea. "So how is everything today?"

"Fine...great." He drummed his fingers restlessly on the large armchair he was sitting in, glancing around the room. It was a typical shrink's office, from the best he could tell. Female shrink, anyway. Tastefully decorated without too much decor, plenty of journals and texts lining the bookshelves. Her desk was relatively neat with only a small stack of paperwork out of place.

"You're profiling me."

He started to object, but then closed his mouth. There wasn't much he could do to argue against the truth. "A bit."

"So tell me what you see." She smiled and sat back in her chair.

"You're neat and professional," he began. "You have enough of your own belongings in your office to make it comfortable for you but not enough to give away extra information about like things neat." He reiterated it again. "A place for everything and everything in its place. You're organized and intelligent, and you want people to know that. It's why you keep your books in here, and right behind you, instead of closer to your desk or at home. It reminds anyone you visit with how well-read you are, how intelligent. I would imagine it makes many men less likely to argue with you. Maybe women too, but definitely men...cops. They see you as an authority figure because of all those books. Most men would assume you're not married because you don't wear a ring, but given the fact that you like to be seen as a complete professional, you probably don't wear it, because you don't want people to know that about you. You're protective of your private life. Fiercely." He paused. "I don't know if you have children."

She was still smiling. "Very good, detective. I can see why you're so valuable to your squad." She took a sip of her tea. "So do you feel less vulnerable, now that you've profiled me?"

He froze, mouth partly open, then laughed awkwardly, looking at his feet for a minute. "I wasn't, uh, profiling you for know, to feel more's just,'s how my mind goes."

"Right." She sat her tea on the end table. "So, the last time we were here, we were talking about your wife's family."

He snorted. "Do we have to talk about that? I thought we were talking about my fears as a parent."

"You don't think the two are related?"


She didn't seem put off at all by his lack of cooperation. "Then let's talk about your father. Surely that impacts how you see yourself in relation to your daughter."

"No," he said carefully, "he has nothing to do with this."

She cocked her head, sitting quietly for a moment. "He was abusive, if I remember correctly."

He didn't answer her, but went back to drumming his fingers on the chair.

"Do you think Malcom DeVry was abusive to his daughter?"

He looked up sharply. "I-I can't draw any conclusions about that."

"You're a profiler, Bobby," she said gently. "You just profiled me and drew many conclusions very quickly. Surely you've drawn some conclusions about what you saw that day."

He looked out the window, watching people walking along the sidewalks outside of the office. "All right. Maybe I did." He met her eyes. "No, I don't think he abused his daughter. I think he loved her. At least to the best of his ability. And when he couldn't any more, when he was faced with not being able to provide for her, to love her completely, he did the only thing that made sense to him--he tried to end it for all of them. To spare them pain."

Lydia nodded.

"It was a stupid thing to do," he added. "He hadn't thought it through rationally."

"But you've found a reason that you think would have been rational to him." She leaned forward, resting her hands on her knee. "I'm wondering how you feel about that."

"That he could rationalize what he was doing?"

"That you can understand his rationalization."

He shook his head. "There's a difference between understanding and sympathizing. I understand what he was thinking...that doesn't mean I think it was logical."

"I've heard you have a reputation for being a bit unpredictable with your colleagues. You know, that genius, that's frightening to some people. Do you ever experience that? People who are afraid of you?"

He blinked.

"In combination with your size...I would imagine you experience that quite frequently, from both suspects as well as other cops."

"I--I don't understand where you're going," he said, crossing his arms protectively. "Are you saying that I'm not stable?"

"I didn't say that. I asked how other people perceive you."

"I have people who love me. My wife--she loves me."

Lydia sat back again in the chair. "Are we talking about love? Because I thought we were talking about how other people perceive you."

He kept his arms crossed and turned his head back to the window.

After a couple of silent minutes, Lydia said softly, "Maybe we're talking about how you perceive yourself."

He didn't move, continued looking out the window, but repeated himself. "My wife loves me."

"And she's the only one you've ever felt it from, isn't she?" At his silence, she pushed gently. "That's a heavy load for both of you...and a lot for your little girl. No wonder you're scared."

He continued to sit, stony and silent, unmoving as the time ticked by. Lydia sat quietly across from him, saying nothing. When a silent tear ran down his cheek, she handed him the box of tissues.

He took them from her, wiped it away, and then turned back to watching the window.

Vanessa brought the bag from the market into the kitchen and deposited it on the counter. "Whew," she told Marly, who was curled against her in the snugli, "you stink!"

Quickly, she shoved the few dairy items in the fridge before heading to the baby's room. Pulling out a diaper, she began untangling Marlene from the snugli, then lay her on the changing table. "Stinky, stinky," she teased in a singsong voice. "Let's get you cleaned up!"

Marlene's limbs moved choppily as she gurgled back at her mother. Vanessa quickly changed her, pulling the onesie back on and her tiny baby pants back up. "Much more stinky baby!" she told her, depositing the diaper in the trash before picking Marly up to head to the bathroom. She washed her hands. "I think it's about time for a nap...then maybe we'll feel like being human when daddy gets home. What do you think?"

The baby wiggled and gurgled some more, and Vanessa carried her down the hall to the bedroom and opened the door. Before she could go any farther, she stopped. Bobby was lying on the bed, still in his suit, an arm over his eyes.

She toed off her shoes quietly and rounded the bed to lay Marly in the bassinet. The baby was already yawning, and Vanessa took the moment to kiss her on the forehead before laying her down. When she looked back up, he was watching her, arm now on his forehead, exposing his eyes.

She knew in her gut something was wrong. She just didn't know what it was. The look on his face was one of sadness, emptiness, almost of fear. Just looking at him made her ache, and she whispered, "What is it?"

"Nothing," he whispered back quickly, then, "everything...I don't know..."

She rounded the bed again and sat next to him, on his side, gently touching his arm. "What can I do?"

He shook his head. She was close enough now she could see the tears wetting his long lashes. His eyes opened again. "If I asked don't have to...could we make love? Please...with no questions right now..." His eyes closed again and a moment later he whispered, "please."

Her hand was stroking his arm. She pulled it back gently. She had no hesitation as she unbuttoned her shirt and dropped it on the floor, then slipped out of her jeans. "Sit up," she directed softly. He did, opening his eyes and taking in her body, and she slowly undid his tie, tossing it aside, before pulling him out of his jacket and shirt.

His face was only inches from hers and his gaze slowly moved up to her eyes. He stared at her for a long moment, tears still in his eyes, before holding her face in his hands. She unhooked her bra and it landed on the floor, next to her jeans. He leaned forward, pressing his forehead against hers, before whispering, "I love you more than you'll ever, ever know."

She didn't speak, but leaned over to kiss him, an act of loving reassurance, before allowing him to pull her down on top of his body. Her hands wrapped in his hair, and when she finally pulled her lips away from his, she whispered, "I love you too. I love you."

He had debated about even asking.

Somehow it had seemed forced and incredibly melodramatic in his head. Having a bad day? Come home, cry, and insist your wife kiss it and make it better. How manly, he thought to himself sarcastically. And he couldn't help but wonder if this had been a pity fuck. She read him better than she read herself, and God knows he was screaming pitiful today. What made it even worse was the fact that this was their first time having sex since the baby was born.

But she was still naked, curled against him, head on his chest, hands stroking his chest hair. If she was put out, she certainly didn't act like it. No, she was linking a leg with his, snuggled closely, as though she found him irresistible. And she hadn't asked a single question.

It had been like she knew by instinct what he needed. Assertive when he wanted her to be, passive when he needed to be in control. She had slid over his body with the expert that only a seasoned lover could give, hitting all of his sweet spots--that spot on his neck that made his breath hitch, right below his nipple that sent shivers through him, his left hip--the erotic suckling that made his erection seem insanely hard. She continued until the demons were diminished and his head had been spinning with lust and desire for her. And when he had firmly turned her over, covering her body with his, she had willingly stretched her body out, hands on the headboard, knees at his thighs, a shy smile on her face. The feeling of being inside her had been nothing short of incredible, as always, but it was more than just horniness. He needed her. He needed her to need him.

And she had, clutching him tightly, encouraging him to love her, telling him over and over how good he felt, how much she needed him, how she had never loved anyone the way she loved him. Ever. Soft whispers that turned into soft cries, finally turning into heavy groans of pleasure when he gave in to his need, erasing the morning with deep, hard, fast thrusts inside of her. So, so good, he told her. She was so good, like an itch he could finally scratch, and she arched against him and tightened her legs around his waist. He swore her legs weren't the only part of her that was tightening as he pummeled on, mind spinning, body cresting, so incredibly close. He braced himself with one hand on the headboard for more leverage, hearing her gasp at the new angle as a moan escape his own lips. God she felt so good, so perfect. His. He wondered for a moment when he became so possessive of her, when the thought of having her all to himself became so erotic.

He had known instinctively the second he entered her that he would beat her there. There was just no way she could possibly come as quickly as he would. But she had either done an insanely good job of faking it, or else she was as wound up as he was, groaning in his ear, something about love and connection and good good good. Her fingernails had raked down his back and she had bitten him, hard, on the shoulder, stifling a heady, erotic moan. And now she was a tender as a pussycat, curled against him.

He played with her hair, fingers wrapped around the tendrils. Her hair was so soft and smooth, unlike his textured curls. Soft, like her; like her body and her gentle spirit. Working up his courage, he finally said it softly: "Thank you."

She kissed his chest. "You don't have to thank me...I love you. And it was good for me too, you know."

"This is becoming a habit." She was looking at him now, and his hand continued to stroke her hair. "I'm sorry. You deserve better."

"Better than great sex with you? What would be better than that?"

He made a funny sound in his throat. "I saw Lydia this morning."

She didn't say anything, but continued to gently rub his chest. He loved that feeling, as though she were massaging all his troubles away.

"She--I don't know...I--" he sighed heavily. "Are you sure you love me? I mean, enough for all of this? And why? Nobody else has ever felt that for me before. Not even my parents." His voice tightened.

"Yes, I'm sure," she said calmly, still massaging his chest. "And it's easy to love you, Bobby. I see you, the real you, and I know how wonderful you really are. I don't regret a single minute with you." She kissed his nipple gently. "I never could. You're my soul mate, Bobby...I only wish you could see yourself the way that I see you." She stroked his cheek, then said, "Your parents couldn't do any better. That has nothing to do with you and who you are."

She felt his body shiver against hers and she snuggled even closer, her wetness pressing against his hip. "I'm here for good and I'm never letting go." Her hand rested on his abdomen. "I promise."

He turned his head toward hers, eyes seeking hers, before catching her mouth in a deep, longing kiss. "You always know how to fix everything, don't you?" he murmured.

"No...but I know you. And I know you're a good man who worries too much about who he is."

He rolled her over quickly, slipping a hand down her body and between her legs. " know I didn't say that so you would do this!"

For the first time that day, he smiled, then nipped her ear. "I love you. Love you so much." His fingers deftly found what he sought and began to stroke her; quick, even movements that made her shudder. "More than anyone I've ever have to know that." His middle finger slipped deeply inside her. "Tell me you know that."

She was arching involuntarily toward him and closed her eyes. Dizzy. She was absolutely dizzy with pleasure. "I know that, baby...I know that...God, please..."

His lips found her neck and he gently began to nibble, then suck, at the smooth flesh. A second finger joined the first, with no predictable rhythm. Touching, stroking, exploring her wetness, until he heard her deeply suck in her breath and whimper his name. "Bobby."

He knew he had found it, that mythological spot, and he wondered for a brief second why he had never tried before now. Quickly he placed his thumb against her, rubbing gently, as his long fingers massaged her inside. She was writhing against him with a desperation he'd never seen before, and as his free hand softly brushed against her breast, she hissed, "please..."

"Yes, don't worry," he whispered, maintaining his rhythm, seeing his wife through completely new eyes and feeling an incredible ache in his throat for this beautiful, sexual woman before him. He began to kiss her nipple, then said, "I won't stop, I promise..."

Her hands were clutching the bedsheets, clinging tightly. He wondered, if the baby weren't in the room, exactly how loud she would be. He allowed himself to suck on her nipple for a short moment but pulled back as soon as he felt her milk hit his tongue, and moved up to her ear.

"You're so close," he whispered. "So wet, so lovely...Beth, I want to watch you come. Come for me, baby...please come..."

Her eyes met his and he felt her hand snake around the back of his neck, dragging his mouth to hers as she rode out her orgasm fiercely against his fingers. He pulled his head back to watch her, and she gave in to the sheer pleasure coursing through her body. Despite her arching, her bucking, the only sound she made was a soft, deep moan from the back of her throat. He had the distinct feeling she would have stifled it if she possibly could have.

One of her hands covered his, holding it in place for several moments as her hips stilled, then, before he could continue, she quickly moved his hand away from her body and kissed him fiercely again. When their lips parted, she was still gasping for breath. She didn't let him go, but held him close.

"You're mine too," she whispered, eyes glazed over from the intensity of her orgasm. "Mine, Bobby...mine."

His lips dove down, hard, onto her mouth, tongue colliding with hers. There was nowhere else he would ever want to be.

She was sitting at the bar when he came in, a few minutes late, his usual.

His smile was dazzling, as always, and he nodded at her. "You're looking well," he greeted her, kissing her cheek before pulling out the stool next to hers. "How is my granddaughter?"

"She's fine, Daddy." Vanessa pulled out an envelope of pictures. "These are for you."

The bartender approached, and Ryan ordered a beer on tap and a sandwich, then turned back to his daughter. "Did you order yet?"

"Yes, thank you."

He opened the envelope and began to flip through the pictures. Halfway through he smiled. "She looks like you were a very pretty baby. Your mother always said so."

She snorted into her glass. "I thought Ava was the pretty one."

His eyes shot sharply to hers, then he said, "You both were pretty babies. Liz and I had very beautiful children."

Vanessa put her glass of water back on the bar, then turned to him. "Do you ever miss her? Mom, I mean?"

He sighed. "Your mother and I had problems, Vanessa. Surely you remember that. Life was hard when the four of us were together."

"I know that. It's not what I asked. I asked if you ever miss her."

He gently laid the pictures on the bar. "No," he said. "Honestly, no, I don't."

She had expected that. It was something she had wondered from time to time, but she had figured if he was honest that he really didn't. "What about Ava?"

"What do you mean?" He took a sip of his beer. "Does Ava miss your mother? Is that what you're asking?"

"No," she clarified, "I'm asking if you miss Ava."

He turned the mug of beer around aimlessly on the bar, before responding. "I think that my relationship with Ava is really between the two of us, don't you?"

She didn't answer. Instead, she motioned to the photos. "Those are for you, in case you'd like them." The bartender returned, setting a salad in front of her and a sandwich in front of Ryan. "How are your kids?"

"Oh, fine. Kate's considering going back to work...I think she's getting bored, being a housewife." He took a bite of his sandwich before continuing. "Are you tired of being at home?"

She was quiet for a moment. "Sometimes. But I enjoy my time with my daughter. I'll never get it back, and she may be our only one."

"Then you should stay home," he announced, as though she were incapable of figuring this out on her own. "That makes sense for you." After another moment, he asked, "Does your husband know you met me here today?"

"Who do you think is watching the baby?"

He smiled to himself. "Well, I guess he would rather stay home with her than let you bring her. I might just spread some sort of evil into her innocent soul."

She took another drink of water. "Yes. I think that about sums it up." She poked at her salad. "I really came for two reasons. One was to give you the photos of your granddaughter and tell you thank you for the gift."

"You're welcome," he said, smiling at her. "She's a lovely little baby, Vanessa. I appreciate the pictures, and I'm glad that you finally saw that I meant good by giving you that picture of your mother."

She bit her tongue, hard, before continuing. "Well, I appreciate you passing it on to me. I didn't have anything like that."

"I figured as much." He took another bite of his sandwich.

"The second reason I came is because of Ava. I need to know why you stopped going to see her."

Ryan put his sandwich back on his plate and shook his head. "It's really none of your concern, Vanessa. Ava knows why, and that's all that matters."

"I don't think she does." She turned toward him. "Look, Daddy, I'm trying to give you the benefit of the doubt here. Is there some reason that you cut off contact with her? Or is it just because of the regular old reason...when times get tough, you get gone?"

He cleared his throat, and when he spoke again, his tone was cool. "There was nothing else I could do for your sister. She wants things from me that I can't give her. That's all there is to it. This problem of hers--it's her problem. I can't fix it for her. Dragging me to therapy won't fix a damn thing. I already know how to eat. She needs to get herself straight. And once she does, I'll be happy to see her again."

If she hadn't been expecting it, Vanessa would have responded with anger or even aggression. But this was her father, and she had expected nothing less than his normal self-obsessive reasoning and behavior. She took a deep breath, then said, "If I asked you...if I asked you to please go with me to therapy with her, would you consider? As a personal favor to me?"

He was swirling his beer in his mug, focusing on the drink as though it were the most interesting thing in the world. "Personal favor? What good is it going to do for the two of us to go?"

"The therapist thinks it would be very helpful for Ava." She stepped carefully. "She's doing better...she's gained weight--"

He was shaking his head. "She's damaged her organs."

"Yes. But she can still live with that, and the therapist thinks she could do very well if we could help her, support her...look, I know it's a lot to ask..." She nearly choked on the bitterness of the word. "Please."

He drained the rest of his beer, then looked at her for several minutes. Finally he said, "When?"

"Tuesday at four."

He shook his head. "I have, family..."

She bit her tongue again and tasted blood. She thought if this lunch didn't end soon, she'd have no tip of her tongue left.

"All right," he finally said, not looking up. "I'll commit to one time. This Tuesday at four. I can't promise anything beyond that."

She fought every desire in her body to smack the back of his head. Trying to ungrit her teeth and sound friendly, she managed it. "Thank you, Daddy."

He checked his watch, then smiled at her. "I have to get going, but I'll see you on Tuesday, I suppose. Thanks for the pictures."

"No problem," she muttered, as she watched him leave without paying. She wondered if he would have even taken the pictures if he hadn't known how much it would bother Goren. Tossing some money on the bar, she grabbed her bag and headed back out onto the New York City street. At least now Ava would have the chance to say her piece, and that was worth every penny.

Closing the front door, she hung her jacket on the coat rack and entered the living room. Bobby was lying on the floor next to Marly, reading a book about schizophrenia out loud. Marlene squirmed and wriggled at her father's voice, occasionally smiling and gurgling.

"Oh...hey,"he said when he saw her and stopped where he was, dog-earing the page and shutting the book.

"Let me guess," she said, a bit sarcastically, "one of Meg's new favorites?"

He chuckled a bit, pulling himself up into a sitting position. "Yeah...she loves learning about all sorts of stuff." He rested a hand gently on her belly, softly patting her. " You should have seen her the other day when I was reading about the neurological disorders of serial killers."

She kicked off her shoes. "Don't read that shit to her, Bobby. You don't know what she understands or when she's going to understand it."

He made a face. "I'm fairly certain she doesn't understand this stuff yet. In fact, I think it's safe to say that most of our colleagues don't understand this stuff."

Vanessa picked Marlene up from the floor and settled in the armchair, pulling off her blouse and unfastening her bra. Marlene quickly began to nurse, and Bobby picked up the blanket from the floor and folded it up. He glanced at her before carefully commenting, "I'm guessing your lunch with Ryan was everything you expected?"

"Pretty much," she replied. "I'd prefer not to discuss it right now."

"All right." He tossed the blanket on the couch and disappeared into the back of the house.

Vanessa snuggled the baby close to her body, watching her suckle and breathe heavily through her nose. Often, when she was curled up close to her daughter, she found her mind wandering to her own childhood, or more specifically, to her time with her mother. Sometimes she thought about Liz and wondered what her mother would say if she could see Marlene. If she would think the baby was beautiful, if she would want to care for her and do all the things Vanessa saw other women's mothers doing. Grandmothers. Marlene didn't have any regular old grandparents. She had Ryan, a complete egomaniac, and Frances, who struggled with schizophrenia. Vanessa reached down and stroked the baby's cheek before switching sides. Sometimes she had imaginary conversations in her head with her mother. Her favorite was imagining what Liz would have said if she could have told her she was pregnant. She imagined Liz's excitement and joy at the news; that she would have clapped her hands together and brought her sheet cake every week, laughing about how the baby needed chocolate. And how honored she would have been for Marly to have her name. How she would have said, "Nessie...a third Elizabeth? Really? Oh honey..." And her mother would have held her closely and stroked her hair. And she would have bought something special for the nursery, a small lovey for Marlene's crib that would have been hers for forever.

The fact that a photo from Ryan now hung in Marlene's room rubbed Vanessa the wrong way; a constant reminder that Ryan was there and Liz was not. As much as the photo bothered her, she just couldn't bring herself to take it down. Liz stared at her with happy eyes, anticipating her first baby in just a few weeks. Her huge belly stuck out, embraced by her own arms, as a toothy grin spread across her youthful face. Vanessa couldn't help but look, every time she walked by it. She wondered if Ryan had known she would have that reaction but had decided Ryan never put enough thought into anything other than himself to anticipate her reaction.

Marly had finished eating; Vanessa rested her on a rag on her shoulder and patted her back firmly until she heard the obligatory burp she was listening for. The sound sometimes made her laugh, but always made her smile. She imagined Marlene was thinking something along the lines of feeling comfortably full, much like finishing a good meal. She rested the baby back in her arms, holding her close as she watched the little eyelids lowering. Marly nearly always fell asleep after eating. Vanessa watched her little daughter slipping into a light sleep before standing to put her in her crib.

She carried her to the back of the condo and entered the master bedroom to lay Marly in the bassinet. Bobby was sitting in the armchair reading his book on neurological disorders. The baby settled into her bassinet easily, and Vanessa sank down on the bed. He looked up at her expectantly. "Are we talking now?" he asked.

She sighed. "There's nothing to say. He's an ass. That will never change. I convinced him to show up on Tuesday, so I did my job. I sold a little piece of my soul to the devil. But if it gives Ava the chance to say what she needs to say, it's worth it."

Bobby closed his book and shook his head. "He's going to walk out of there as soon as she says the first critical word to him. Mark my words."

She knew he was right, but the truth of it was more than she could handle right now, and she lay back on the bed. "Do you have to be such a realist every fucking moment, Goren? Could you not just let me believe in happy endings, for just one minute?"

He moved over to the bed next to her. "I'm sorry," he said, running one finger over her belly, subconsciously noting its slow return to its original shape. "I didn't realize that was what I was supposed to do."

She shook her head. "Goren." Her voice sounded removed, detached, but her eyes were focused on his own. "Did you know we're not supposed to even want to have sex with each other? We're supposed to be too tired and too distracted and too whatever."

He smiled. "I didn't know we were talking about sex."

She was still watching him intently. "Kiss me, Goren. Like you mean it. Like I'm the only woman you ever wanted. Like you're dying of thirst and I'm the only glass of water you have access to."

She watched his smile disappear and his eyes turn dark. "Okay," he said, voice low, "but not in here...not with Marly right next to us."

When she didn't answer, he stood and made his way to the bassinet. He gently lifted the baby from her bed, then exited the room. Vanessa lay still on the bed, eyes closed, until she heard his footsteps return to the room and the door close. When she opened her eyes, he held up the baby monitor. "So we can hear her, right away," he explained, setting it onto the nightstand.

She nodded but didn't move, and he eased himself down on the bed next to her. One of his large hands covered her breast immediately, softly kneading the flesh before lowering his mouth to hers. Deeply intense, he kissed her fully, exactly how he wanted to, exactly how he fantasized of tasting her. She didn't speak, only responded with her body, arching up to meet his hand, tongue gently touching his. He pulled himself up from her, caressing her nipple only with his thumb, feeling the hardness of it beneath his touch. Focusing on her eyes, he said firmly, "I want to hear you this time. I want to hear you when you come."

She nodded, tempted to acquiesce completely to his demands, but when he leaned to kiss her again, she wrapped both arms around his neck to control the intensity. When their lips parted again, she caught her breath and said, "That goes both ways, Bobby...I want to hear you too...I want to know you want me." She shook her head. "I need to know."

He pressed his lips to hers, then pulled back slightly. "Like I ever couldn't want you," he muttered into her mouth. "I told air...I need you like air."

Their lovemaking was purposeful, needy, and insanely pleasurable. He was determined to bring her harder than ever before, and he put every skill he had to the task. Touching, tasting, moving against her until her words quieted and her body was on overdrive. She was wrapped around him tightly, begging softly for more, when he quickly rolled her on top. His intent had been to change the sensation, but he underestimated her. She quickly took control, driving him, until he was listening to his own voice begging, closing his eyes to keep the overload of sensation from driving him mad.

"For me, Bobby," she was groaning against him, "I need you...please...for me..."

Too much. He felt too much--love, need, passion, arousal, desire. He clutched her hips, driving upward and demanding harshly, "Kiss,"

She did, pressing her lips hard onto his, tongues tangling as he thrust hard and fast and she moved quickly against her. Until she heard his breath hitch, sharp, and a gutteral moan come from his throat, the erratic movements of his hips a sure sign of his orgasm. She moved sharply against him, feeling her own body explode, exactly how she needed, and she clutched his hair, grinding against his hips and moaning loudly. What he had asked for. What she needed. The flow like a wave, back and forth between them, a mix of need and want and undeniable pleasure. As the contractions lessened, she collapsed her head against his sweaty shoulder. If she never moved again she would be an insanely happy woman.

After several quiet moments he wrapped his arms around her body, still sweaty and gasping for air, running his fingers idly up and down her spine. She moved to his side, still pressing her body hard against his and letting him feel her warmth, her sweat, her wetness. He was such a sensory-driven man; she knew the feeling of her body just after he had practically ravaged her would only serve to please him.

She was right, of course. His hand was open and caressing her back fully, sliding down to cup her ass and hold her tightly. He could feel her, smell her, smell their lovemaking on her and him and the bed, and he had no desire to ever move. Ever.

When he finally spoke, it was soft and sweet, as his lips brushed the shell of her ear. "We're part of each other," he murmured. "Marly is proof of that."

She stretched fully against him, kissing him gently, pressing her breasts against his chest and catching his face in her hands. "Promise me you won't see me as only a mother. I love Marly so much, but I want...I need...I need to be more than that.."

His hands reached up, over her own. "You're everything. You know that. I love you, Vanessa...I can't imagine my life without you." His finger slid softly across her face. "And no, you're not just my daughter's're my best friend..."

She kissed him again, deep and slow and sexy enough that he groaned against her. His fingers moved into her hair. "Damn. If I were only ten years younger..."

She chuckled softly, slipping a hand between them and stroking his soft penis. "I am," she replied teasingly.

He had caught his breath when her hand had touched him, but now he pulled her hand away gently and rolled her over. "So you are," he growled low, smiling, pressing his lips to her neck. "So you are." She sighed as his hands ran back and forth. "I don't think we should waste any time."

"Mary..." she gulped, not meaning to, "she might wake up."

"Or she might now," he reasoned, lowering his lips to her nipple again.

"You know what..." her breath caught tightly at the light pressure from his sucking. "My milk..."

He lifted his head slightly to meet her eyes. "I want to taste you. Relax, my sweet girl...I promise if you trust me, everything will be good. More than good. Perfect." And he lowered his head back down to her nipple.

And it was.


She and Bobby arrived at the hospital twenty minutes early, just as Christian had asked them to. They ran into David at the nurse's desk. He seemed awkward, nervous, a physical reflection of Vanessa's own feelings for the afternoon. She had wondered on the way over, to Bobby, how Ryan would respond when he saw all of them there. If Ava would even be able to speak her piece without him leaving. But she was damned and determined to do every bit she could to make him stay, even if it meant putting on her happiest face and attitude.

"Hey," Ava greeted her, slowly standing from her wheelchair. She was wearing a blue knit sweater and jeans, the first actual clothing Vanessa had seen her in, in months. Seeing Vanessa's surprised expression, Ava smiled with a tinge of pride. "I earned them back...I'm up to ninety-nine."

She was absolutely thrilled for Ava, but before she could speak, Bobby had reached over and touched Ava's shoulder. "That's wonderful," he said sincerely. "I'm so incredibly happy for you."

Ava beamed at Bobby, then said, "Well, I've been working hard...eating what they give me, mostly...Christian gave me permission to take walks on the grounds, and David has been bringing Justin almost every day...that's helped."

Christian appeared, interrupting Ava and directing them into a group room. "Why don't we all take a moment to discuss what's going to happen today?"

They filed into the room, Ava sitting next to David and Vanessa taking a chair next to Bobby, leaving one chair empty between the sisters. "So," Christian began, "let's just take a few minutes to talk about how this is going to go, and our goals for today." He turned toward Ava. "Ava, tell everyone what you're hoping will happen today."

Ava sighed heavily before speaking. After a moment, she said, "I'm hoping that Daddy will be able to listen to what I have to his actions have been hurtful and what I need from him."

"And what do you want everyone else to do?"

She looked around the room, face to face, and then smiled. "Just support me. You don't have to say anything. It just helps me to know that if he walks out and never comes back, I have family that loves me."

"We do," Vanessa said firmly. "No matter what he does, you have us...all of us...we won't be going anywhere."

David had taken Ava's hand. "You know I'm here, sweetie. No matter what."

Bobby nodded. "He can do whatever he wants. None of us are your father, but we all care about you. And we stand by you, Ava. You deserve a happy life. A full life, with or without him."

Ava glanced down at David's hand caressing hers, then from Vanessa's face to Bobby's, and her hesitant smile grew more confident. She nodded. "I'm going to confront him. I'm going to tell him he should have been supporting me."

Christian's office phone buzzed and he picked up the receiver, spoke a few words, and hung up. "Well, are you ready, Ava?"

Vanessa could see the subtle cracks in her sister's facade, but Ava nodded anyway. "Yes," she told Christian. "I'm ready now."

Christian nodded, then stood and left the room. Vanessa leaned forward. " matter may hurt like hell...but it will be okay. We will always be your family. No matter what, Ava. I promise."

Vanessa could see the shine in Ava's eyes, indicative of tears unshed, and David leaned over and kissed her cheek.

Christian opened the door to the room, and they heard him say, "Please...come in."

Ryan stepped in the door, typical smile pasted on his face, but stopped moving two feet in. His eyes scanned the room, taking in all of them, before saying, " looks like I'm late to the party." After another moment, he stepped toward Ava and kissed her cheek. "You're looking much better, Ava," he commented, then leaned over and kissed Vanessa on the cheek. "Good to see you, Vanessa. I suppose I sit in the hot seat?"

Christian took his seat and smiled. "It's just a chair, Ryan. We thought you might be most comfortable between your daughters."

Ryan gave a hollow laugh. "Well, I suppose considering the options, that might be true." He looked from Vanessa to Ava. "So why is everyone here? I thought this was a meeting between Ava and myself."

"Well, Ava had some things she wanted to talk to you about. They were difficult things for her to say, and she asked for her whole family to be here. Does that make you uncomfortable?"

Ryan crossed his arms, and his smile faded. "Robert isn't a big fan of mine...I don't want this to disintegrate to a yelling match."

Christian turned to Bobby. "Bobby, do you think you can keep yourself under control?"

"Absolutely," Bobby nodded. "I have no intention of making anything harder for Ava."

Ryan eyed him carefully. "I guess we'll see," he responded. "So..." he turned to Ava. "What are we talking about today?"

Ava hesitated uncharacteristically, and Vanessa suddenly realized how insanely difficult this was for her little sister. Harder, even, than if she had ever had to confront Liz. Ava was twirling her fingers around one another. Christian nodded to her. "Well, Daddy, thank you for coming...I know this isn't where you wanted to be."

"I knew you'd come out eventually," Ryan responded confidently. "It doesn't help you if I make things easier for you by coddling you. Now look at're in regular clothes today. You're close to being released, aren't you?"

Vanessa bit her tongue again, and watched her little sister. "I don't know," Ava said slowly. "But it hurt me tremendously when you told me you would not come back."

"It may have hurt, but it helped you, didn't it? Look at how much more motivated you are!"

Ava was quiet. Breaking the silence, Christian asked, "Do you feel your dad's actions helped to motivate you?"

Ava didn't look up, but she spoke clearly. "No. The reason I've done better is because the rest of my family has given a hundred percent to help me...and I've given a hundred percent. David brings Justin nearly every day. Vanessa and Bobby have both come to see me individually, and they come every weekend with Marlene. I-I've started to understand that my family is bigger than you, Daddy. And that my family can love me despite my mistakes."

"I never said I didn't love you," Ryan protested. "I told you there was no point in me coming to see you--"

"--if I was wasting away," she completed for him. "I was dying. You left me when I was dying. When I needed you most, you left again. Vanessa dragged her eight-month pregnant ass over here to see me twice a week. Bobby isn't even my blood or my husband and he came to see me." Her tone was angrier now, but she didn't look up. "Why, Daddy? Why can my husband, my sister, my brother-in-law, even, love me when you can't?"

"I did it to help you," he said confidently, "and it did. Sometimes kids need tough love! Something your mother never understood. That's why your sister suffered the way she did--your mother never was willing to let her suffer from her own choices. If I had continued to come, it would have been the same as saying it was okay for you to behave like this."

"Behave like this?" she choked. "You think I chose this?"

"Of course you chose this. Eating isn't a difficult task, Ava. You pick up a fork and put the food in your mouth. By me not supporting you, it helped motivate you to get better."

"Do you know what helped me get better?" she asked, her voice quiet, shaky. "David coming nearly every day with Justin to visit and play with me. Vanessa and Bobby come to therapy on Tuesdays and bringing Marlene on the weekend. My family--the one here that loves me--showing that they support me and know I can recover, no matter how hard it is."

He shook his head. "Your mother gave your sister everything she ever wanted, and look at what a mess she became...drugs, sex, alcohol..."

"Maybe those things happened because she had nothing else to comfort her after she lost Mommy. Or maybe they didn't. But the family that loves me never gave up on me. You did."

Ryan stared at her, long and hard, before speaking again. "So you're making a decision're saying I'm not the family that loves you."

There was a strained silence, then Ava nodded. "Yes. That's what I'm saying."

Ryan turned quickly to his other side, facing Vanessa. "This is because of you, isn't it? The life you lead...does your husband know what a slut you were? The STD's, the multiple lovers, the abortions? Does he know about all of that? The drugs? And you've managed to convince your little sister that somehow this is your poor dead mother's fault--"

"She didn't convince me of anything." Ava's voice was cold. "It's perfectly clear from your behavior."

"So now it's my fault that your sister fucked anything moving? That your mother chose the easy way out?"

Vanessa felt Bobby shifting next to her, the anger emanating off of him, and she rested a hand on his knee.

"My sister," Ava tilted her head up, "is a good woman and a loving wife and mother. I hope I can be the kind of wife she is. And my mother was ill. Maybe if you hadn't been so self-involved, you might have noticed in time to help her, instead of leaving a fifteen-year old in charge of trying to fix an adult problem."

Ryan stood. "So this is how it's going to be? Your line in the sand, Ava? You're choosing to separate yourself from me?" He shook his head. "I've always been there for you."

Christian interrupted him. "Ryan, if you'd like to discuss this further, I'm going to have to insist you sit back down. It's unacceptable to stand in Ava's personal space like this."

But Ava stood to face him. "No you haven't," she said firmly. "You weren't there for me when Mommy died. You weren't there the last time I was sick. And you weren't there for me now. You're there when it's convenient and makes you look good. My real family is here for me when I need them. Not you, Daddy. Not you."

Ryan scanned the room, meeting the eyes of every glaring face. He finally settled on his eldest daughter's. "I hope you're happy now. It's what you've always wanted, isn't it? To take me away from my own daughter?"

"You had two daughters," David said, as he stood next to his wife, resting a hand on her shoulder. "Two. And now you have none."

Ryan looked from one woman to the other, then to his sons-in law. Finally he hung his head. "You know, neither of you are worth it. Just like your mother. Walking trash." He shook his head, then headed to the door. As he opened it, he paused for just a moment to look at Ava. "I hope you're happy with this decision. Because one day, when you're not, you can look around and blame your sister. She's the one who's caused all this trouble from the beginning." He left the room, letting the door slam behind him. Ava's body was noticeably shaking, and David reached out and held her, easing her down to the couch.

Beneath her quiet sobs, she whispered, "I did it...I finally did it."

Vanessa sat still, hand still on Bobby's knee, until he took it in his own. Christian met Bobby's eyes. "It may be best right now if Ava and David can have a few minutes alone to finish the session. Would that be all right with everyone?"

"Of course," Vanessa said with a conviction she didn't feel. As she and Bobby stood to leave, Ava reached out and grabbed the hem of her shirt.

"Vanessa," she gasped, face covered in tears, "Don't listen to him. I don't believe it. You're an amazing woman. Don't let him hurt you...please..."

She smiled at her little sister, only hoping to ease the pain that Ava was feeling. 'I won't," she said. "It's all okay." She leaned down and kissed Ava gently on the cheek, then watched Bobby do the same before leading her out into the hallway.

Their walk through the hospital was silent, his large hand pressed firmly on her lower right waist, guiding her from the elevator through the hallways and finally outside, to the parking garage. Slowly he let go of her and unlocked the door, watching her climb into the passenger seat, lay her purse on the floor and stare straight ahead.

He closed the driver door and put his seatbelt on, then turned on the ignition. He stopped before putting the car in gear, and stared at her for several minutes until she finally looked back at him.

"You're not a slut," he said. "You're an amazing woman, and I'm so fortunate to know you."

"I was a slut," she said, empty. "You don't even know."

He was quiet, staring ahead as well for a moment, before speaking. "I know this," he finally said, looking at her. "I've never known a woman who has such a capacity to love or to forgive. I've never known a woman who had the capacity to love me...much less to love me the way you do. I could give a shit less about your past. All of it led you to me, and for that, I'm eternally grateful."

Her eyes met his, misty, before she pressed her forehead onto his arm, letting the tears begin to flow. He felt his own, and they sat quietly, crying together, for everything they had lost and the mistakes they had made and how all of it, through some bizarre course of fate, had led them to this, this life together, that they would never change.

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