Joined: October 17th, 2004, 8:41 pm

October 21st, 2004, 3:46 pm #1



Joined: October 17th, 2004, 8:41 pm

December 28th, 2004, 1:33 pm #2

Raku's Fics


Joined: October 17th, 2004, 8:41 pm

December 28th, 2004, 1:34 pm #3

Tidings of Comfort and Joy

A short Shawn and Belle Christmas story. Rated R.

Tidings of Comfort and Joy

Little feet pounded in the hallway. Belle smiled as her six-year-old daughter barreled into the kitchen.

“Mommy!” The girl, petite for her age with blonde hair and brown eyes, jumped up and down with excitement, her twin pony tails swinging as she moved. “Can you help me write a letter to Santa? Tommy at school says there is no such thing as Santa, but what does he know? He’s a dumb boy! I want to write to Santa so I can show Tommy after Christmas that he’s wrong!”

Belle’s heart sank. She didn’t know where they were going to find the money to give Katie anything for Christmas, let alone whatever she might ask for from Santa. But, she pasted on a brave smile and knelt down next to her daughter. “So you want to write a letter to Santa and prove Tommy wrong?”

Katie nodded. She fiddled with one of the straps to her red bib-overalls. “And when are we going to get a Christmas tree? It’s past Thanksgiving you know,” she said knowledgably. “All the other kids have one in their houses.” She frowned. “Or did Daddy decide that we aren’t allowed to have one?”

Belle raised one eyebrow. “Why would Daddy decide that?”

Katie frowned. She knew things weren’t great in the Brady household. Mommy and Daddy had been fighting ever since Daddy had lost his job and they’d had to move into the apartment instead of living in their big house. She missed her old room, with its special reading nook, but, she decided, at least she still had all of her favorite stuffed animals. “Well, we did have to give up our house.” She tried not to look too sad. “So I thought maybe Daddy didn’t want a tree anymore.”

Shawn, who had just walked into the kitchen, couldn’t help but overhear his daughter’s words. Just another thing I’ve failed at, he thought miserably. He’d lost his job over a year ago. Once a high-powered business executive, he’d worked hard to provide his family with a life of financial stability and luxury. All that had come crashing down when he’d been accused of theft and almost immediately fired. He had been unable to clear his name, and though the company agreed not to press charges, word got around, and no other company would even consider talking to him. Now, instead of flying around the world, arranging mergers and take-overs with major entrepreneurs, he could barely make ends meet while working the graveyard shift at the local steel mill. He shook himself out of his thoughts and focused on Katie, one of the few bright spots in his life.

“Hey, pumpkin,” he said gently. “You’re absolutely right. We do need a tree. How about we go out this afternoon and get one?”

Katie’s eyes lit up. She did a little dance in place and then threw her arms around Shawn’s legs. Her eyes, just like her fathers’, shone with excitement. “YAY! I hope we get the most beautifulist one ever!”

Shawn purposefully ignored Belle’s subtle clearing of her throat. He knew they probably couldn’t afford a tree, but he’d be damned if he would let his daughter down on Christmas. “Well, we’ll just have to do that, wont’ we?”

Katie nodded, and then scrambled to the door. “I have to go tell Susie and Katie Jr. about the tree!”

Belle watched her daughter run back to her room where the two mentioned beloved dolls awaited the news. She waited until Katie was out of earshot, and then rounded on Shawn. “Shawn, what were you thinking? Where are we going to get the money to pay for a Christmas tree? Should I explain to Katie that we might be able to eat dinner for a week because Daddy couldn’t say no to her?”

Shawn glared at his wife. “I’ll figure something out,” he snapped. “I’ll work an extra shift.”

Belle sighed. “Shawn, they already told you that you’re on a probationary period with this job. They won’t allow you to work overtime until you’ve been there for three years.”

Shawn’s eyes darkened with anger and humiliation. “Thank you so much for throwing that in my face. I bet you think I’m as guilty as your father did.”

Belle cringed. Her father, while not the one who directly had been responsible for firing Shawn, still owned Black Enterprises, the company Shawn used to work for. It had created a barrier between she and her husband that she worried might never be broken. “Shawn, I don’t think that and you know it. I just want you to think rationally. We have bills to pay, our credit cards are about maxed out, and you are wanting to spend $40 we don’t have on a tree that we’ll be throwing away in a month.”

Shawn’s jaw tightened. “Damn it, if I want to buy my daughter a Christmas tree, then I will. We used to have four in our house, and I am not about to let her go without one. Is that too much to ask?”

Belle wanted to hug him. The past year had been hard on Shawn, and she hated seeing the man she loved turn so bitter and angry. “Honey, no it SHOULDN’T be too much to ask, but it is not practical. Look, Goodwill has trees. Maybe we can get a nice used artificial tree. I think I saw some there for around $5. That’s more in our budget.”

Shawn flopped down onto a barstool. He crossed his muscular arms. “I’m not compromising on this, Belle. I’ll figure something out.”

Belle groaned. “You are too stubborn for your own good…for OUR own good. I think you’re being selfish.”

Shawn’s eyes widened. “What? I’m being selfish because I want to make my little girl happy?”

Belle glared at her husband. “You know very well that this is not about Christmas trees. This is about your stubborn pride, and your unwillingness to face reality. We are struggling, Shawn. I know you’re working hard to support our family, but we can’t do things like we used to. Look, I can go back to school, finish my nursing degree. It’s a good job, and they need nurses. Won’t that make us better off in the long run? It would pay better than my job at the Shop n Save.”

“And where are we going to get the money for you to go to school? If we can’t afford a $40 Christmas tree, we sure as hell can’t afford to pay for tuition.” Shawn studied his wife. He noticed, not for the first time, the tired lines around her eyes. She put in long hours at the store, and he suspected, because of his reputation, she had been overlooked for several well-deserved promotions. But she never complained. God, he loved her, loved her for being a wonderful mother to their child, and for standing by him during the past year.

Belle suddenly began to fidget with the dishtowel that hung on the refrigerator door. “I thought I’d talk to my father, see if he would give us a loan. Shawn, he doesn’t want us to starve, and he would be willing to help us out…”

“No!” Shawn jumped to his feet. “I’ve told you this before. I am NOT allowing the man who screwed with OUR lives to have another way to control us. The minute we borrow money from him, that is when he owns us. No. If he had wanted us not to struggle, then he would have stopped them from firing me in the first place.”

Belle swallowed the painful lump in her throat. The argument was the same one they’d had for over a year. “Shawn, my father didn’t want you to lose your job. He told you that the only way he could keep Blake Edwards from pressing criminal charges against you was to let them fire you. He feels terrible about that. I wish you’d realize that. Dad wants to help, but you won’t let him. He’s not a monster.”

Shawn rolled his eyes. “I’m taking my daughter, and I’m going to buy a Christmas tree. We’ll be back in time for supper.”

“Fine, but know this. I’ve already talked to my father, and he is willing to loan me the money to go to school. I’m done trying this your way, Shawn.” Belle felt terrible. Humiliation washed over her husband’s handsome face, and she wished she could convince him that he was anything but a failure in her eyes.

Shawn’s anger bubbled in his gut. “Sometimes I wonder why the hell we’re still married,” he muttered. “Do what you want. What does it matter anymore?” He stalked out of the kitchen, the hurt expression on Belle’s face firmly imprinted in his mind.

Two hours later, with a 6-foot tree tied to the roof of their station wagon, Shawn and Katie pulled up in front of Horton’s, the big department store downtown. “Ok, pumpkin,” Shawn said as he waited for his daughter to climb out of the car. He took her hand in his and led her into the store. “We’ll find a bathroom, and then we’ll be on our way back home.”

Katie nodded as she tugged on his hand, trying to get him to go faster. She looked around in awe at the brightly lit store with its tall, beautifully decorated Christmas trees, cheerful music, and even….Santa? Santa was here? Her heart sped up with excitement. Maybe she wouldn’t have to write a letter to Santa after all. It would be much better to talk to him in person. “Daddy! It’s Santa! Can I go see him? Please please please? I really need to talk to him!”

Shawn looked down at his daughter, and his heart melted. Her brown eyes danced with joy, and he smiled. “Ok, sweetie. Let’s hit the bathroom, then we’ll go see Santa.”

They waited in line for nearly half an hour before Katie got her turn. With a gentle smile and a pat on her shoulder, Shawn nudged Katie forward. “Go ahead, honey. Do you want me to walk up there with you?”

Suddenly feeling shy, Katie nodded. She held her father’s hand, feeling nervous. Would Santa be able to help? With a child’s naïve faith in the world, she figured that the only person that could help was, in fact, Santa Claus.

“Hi Santa,” she said, only pausing a moment before climbing onto his lap. She liked his rosy cheeks, and the kind twinkle in his blue eyes.

Shawn watched with an indulgent smile as Katie chatted with Santa. However, once he realized what she was saying, his smile vanished.

“And what would you like for Christmas,” the gentleman playing Santa asked.

“Well,” Katie said. She pulled on her purple scarf. “I really need to talk to you. See, my family needs your help. Mommy says we can’t ‘ford most things. My Daddy needs his job back. My Mommy is very sad, so she needs to be happy. And me, well, I just want to live in our old house.” She smiled uncertainly at Santa.

Shawn didn’t even hear the man’s response. He’d been expecting for Katie to ask for a doll, a game, anything a child of six might enjoy playing with. But instead, she wanted Santa to fix their family. His heart ached. No one could give Katie what she wanted for Christmas.


The tree did look beautiful, Belle admitted to herself. They’d had it up for two weeks, leaving only 5 days before Christmas. She’d managed to work several extra shifts at the store, and so that had covered not only the cost of the tree, but also had allowed her to buy a few presents for Katie.

Shawn walked into the living room. He stopped, enjoying a few moments to watch his wife. She stood in front of the tree, fingering the brightly colored glass ornaments, and the soft, glowing colors of the lights reflected beautifully on her face. A sweet smile curved her lips, and it filled Shawn’s heart with both joy and guilt. He felt joy in knowing that Belle was his wife, the only woman he could ever love. But he also felt guilt for causing the tired slump to her shoulders. How often since he lost his job had Belle smiled that happy, shining, contented smile that used to send shivers all over his body? Not often enough, he thought sadly. He walked quietly up to her and slid his arms around her waist. Regardless of what had happened between them in the past year, he still loved her with all of his heart. She melted into him and rested her head against his chest with a soft sigh.

“It’s so pretty isn’t it?” Belle rested her hand on top of Shawn’s arm. She loved being in his arms. She felt so safe, so loved, so cherished. “Katie brought home an ornament from school, and since we didn’t have a tree at the time, I put it away. But I remembered today that I had stuck it in my dresser drawer, so I hung it up on the tree. Isn’t it cute?”

Shawn smiled and, one arm still around Belle’s waist, he reached over to examine the small Styrofoam ball hanging on the tree. Katie’s school picture decorated the front, and all around the ball she had glued glitter, shiny ribbon, and sequins. “It’s a work of art,” he agreed. He pressed a small kiss into Belle’s neck. “How did we get so lucky?”

Belle pulled away from Shawn, and turned to stare at him in shock. “Shawn, what are you saying? You’ve done nothing for the past year but tell me how pissed off you are about losing your job.”

Shawn felt the loving moment slip right between his fingers. He dropped his arm from her waist. “So you’re saying I had no right to be angry about losing my job for something I didn’t do?”

Belle sighed impatiently. “No, Shawn. That is NOT what I was saying. I just meant…” She shook her head. When had they started having so much trouble understanding one another? She crossed her arms. “Never mind. I’m sorry I said anything.” It had been too good to last. For a few sweet minutes, she’d felt close to her husband, felt the closeness they used to share every minute of their lives.

He bit his lower lip. “No, I’m sorry.” He pulled her close to him. “I’m always saying the wrong thing, aren’t I?” He looked around the small living room of their tiny two-bedroom apartment. Belle had done her best to make their apartment look homey and welcoming, creating splashes of color with pillows and a few paintings they had saved from their old house. “I just…I wanted more for us.” He gently placed a finger over Belle’s lips when she started to protest. “Listen, as you know, when Katie and I went to get the Christmas tree, we stopped by Horton’s, and she got to see Santa. I…we need to talk, Belle.” He led her over the couch and pulled her down next to him. “I overheard what Katie told Santa she wanted for Christmas, and it damn near undid me.”

Belle felt her anger melting. She loved her husband, and maybe, just maybe he had started to let go of his anger and bitterness. If that was the case, it would be more than enough for her for Christmas. “What did she want? That deluxe doll house that’s been advertised on TV?”

Shawn shook his head. He tipped Belle’s chin upwards with his finger. He looked deep into her blue eyes, twin oceans that reflected his soul. “God, I wish it were that simple,” he said quietly. “No, she asked for you to be happy, for me to have my job back, and for us to live in our old house.” He sighed heavily. “Even if by some miracle we got our old house back, we could never afford to maintain it. There’s no way for us to give Katie what she wants for Christmas, Belle, and it’s killing me. This is going to take away our six-year-old’s fantasy of Santa Claus way before it should have to happen.” He dropped his gaze from hers. “I can’t help but feel I’ve failed all of you.”

Belle closed her eyes. When would Shawn learn? When would he be able to trust that she wanted nothing more out of life than to be with he and their daughter? She studied her husband. She wanted to take away that deep sadness in his eyes. She wanted him to know she was proud of him. When he’d lost his job, he’d immediately gone to look for a new one. He’d tried for months, kept trying even when it became increasingly obvious that no one would ever hire him in the business world again. He’d not given up until his severance pay had run out and he’d been forced to look for other employment. Even that had not come easily until the steel mill had hired him. But he had taken the job because he was responsible, and because he wanted to help provide for his family. She caressed the back of his cheek with her fingers. “Honey, I don’t know how many times I’ve told you this, but you are not a failure. We still have a roof over our heads, we have food to eat, and most importantly, we have each other. I have you, and I have our beautiful daughter. That is ALL I need.”

Shawn smiled and kissed her softly on the lips. “I’m trying to believe that, sweetheart. But hearing Katie wish for things no six-year-old should worry about…it broke my heart.” His voice cracked, and he swallowed hard. Belle rubbed her hand up and down his arm in silent support. “I want to give her what she wants for Christmas. But I…can’t.”

Belle took Shawn’s hand in hers and gave it a squeeze. “Shawn, all it will take for me to be happy is to see you let go of your anger and bitterness and start trying to think about the future.” She pressed her lips together as she thought of how she could best get through to him. “Katie needs for US to be happy, and then she’ll be happy. I know we don’t have much money, but we have each other, and we can get through this together. Just because you lost your job---through no fault of your own—doesn’t mean that I am any less proud of you.”

Shawn gave her a half-hearted smile. He wanted to be able to be the man he wanted to be, to be a man she could be proud of. The realization surprised him, simply because he’d spent the past year fighting against the reality of the present instead of believing he had the power to change their future. He’d been a fool, and he’d put his family through absolute hell…all because of his pride. Feeling shamed and worthless, he quickly stood up and hurried towards the front door.

Belle rushed after him, grabbing his coat from the coat tree as she ran. “Shawn! What’s wrong? Where are you going?” She grabbed his arm and thrust his coat towards him. “It’s cold outside. You need your coat.”

Hardly aware that he had taken the garment from Belle, Shawn could only hear the buzzing in his ears. After the incredible pain and heartache he’d put Belle through, all she did was stand by him and support him. Sure, she’d been angry with him at times, but she would never leave him, and deep down, he knew that. How had he repaid her? By constantly yelling at her. By retreating so far into himself that he was emotionally unavailable. When had he stopped to think how BELLE might be feeling? All he had thought about was how losing the job affected HIS ability to care for his family, which translated to how it damaged his pride. “Don’t keep supper waiting,” he mumbled as he stumbled out the door.

Belle watched her husband leave the apartment, and her arms ached to hold him, to comfort him. In the year since Shawn had been fired, he’d held every emotion but anger tightly bottled inside, and it worried her to see the man she loved shutting her out. But, as much as she wanted to go after him, she knew that he had to work things out for himself. Maybe, just maybe things would start looking up for their family. “I couldn’t ask for a better Christmas present,” she whispered after his retreating figure. She closed the front door and then headed into the kitchen to finish making supper.

Katie stood in the small courtyard behind their apartment. Bundled in a bright blue snow suit, purple boots, purple mittens, hat, and scarf, she tried hard to roll the large ball of snow she made. “C’mon Mr. Snowman,” she muttered. “You aren’t fat enough yet.” She grunted as she tried to push the ball of snow, and instead of moving it, she succeeded only in breaking it apart. Two fat tears slid down each cheek as she angrily kicked at the crumbling pieces of snow.

Shawn rounded the corner of the building just in time to witness Katie’s snowball crumble. She now stood in front of the pile of snow, sobbing her little heart out. He couldn’t stand it, his own feelings of inadequacy momentarily forgotten. He ran over to her and knelt down in front of her. “What’s wrong, sweetheart,” he asked softly, reaching out to brush away a few strands of blonde hair that stuck to her wet cheek.

Katie sniffed loudly and practically jumped into her father’s waiting arms. She felt confused. She was so sad, so unhappy, and she couldn’t understand why. “Maybe I hurt Mr. Snowman’s feelings,” she sobbed. She blinked miserably at Shawn, her big brown eyes dewy with unshed tears. “I told him he wasn’t fat enough, and I know it’s not nice to call people fat. Maybe that’s why he fell apart.” She drew a deep, shaking breath. “Daddy, why won’t Santa come to our house this year?”

Shawn’s arms reflexively pulled her tightly to his chest. “Why would you say that, pumpkin?”

Katie shrugged. Even at the tender age of six she’d been taught very well to try and think of others, but it was so very hard when it concerned not getting Christmas presents for oneself. “Because Bethany said we’re too poor for Santa to care.” She frowned. “Are we poor, Daddy? I told her she was dumb and that we used to live in a house that had FOUR Christmas trees. She said that’s why we’re poor, because we couldn’t keep our house.” Katie shrugged. “But Daddy, our old house was much bigger than Bethany’s house.”

Shawn kissed Katie on the cheek and then settled her on his knee. He didn’t care that the cold snow seeped through his jeans. All he wanted was to make his daughter happy. “Katie, I want you to listen to me. We are not poor. Santa doesn’t only visit the rich families. We may not have as much money as we used to, but you shouldn’t worry about that. It’s Mommy and Daddy’s job to worry about those kinds of things. Santa knows what a good little girl you have been this year, and he always rewards the good little girls and boys.”

Katie’s eyes brightened. “Do you think he’ll give me what I wanted for Christmas?” She asked excitedly.

Shawn hugged her again. The tiny child fiercely squeezing him back evoked such intense love in his heart that he knew he would do anything, ANYTHING to give her the life she deserved. He slid her off of his knee and scooped up a ball of snow in his hand. “Come on, baby. Let’s build that snowman.”


Christmas morning dawned early in the Brady household. Katie could hardly stay in bed long enough for the sun to come up. Once again, she’d vowed to stay up long enough to hear Santa come, but somehow she’d fallen asleep and missed it. She slid out of bed and padded quietly to her door. She could hear her mommy and daddy sleeping in their room, and so she snuck down the hall to the living room. The Christmas tree shone brightly, its lights twinkling in the still-dark living room. Brightly colored packages littered the floor underneath the tree, and she instantly knelt down in front of them. She looked to see which ones had her name on them, and, more importantly, which ones were from Santa. She spotted her stocking, hanging on the back of a dining room chair, and ran over to open its contents. Inside, she found a bead bracelet, a dress for her favorite doll, a candy bar, and a key. She lifted the key out to inspect it, and found it to be nothing more than an ordinary house key. “Maybe Santa dropped it,” she said out loud. She put it back into the stocking, with a child’s confidence that Santa might think to come back and look for it.

Shawn and Belle woke to the sounds of Katie’s feet pattering on the hall floor. Shawn rolled over in bed and studied his wife as she slept. She looked so relaxed, so beautiful, and he could have easily spent all morning watching her if they didn’t have an anxious six-year-old waiting to open presents in the living room. He kissed her on the corner of her mouth, smiling as she moaned in her sleep and curled into him. She cracked open one blue eye and smiled up at her husband. “Merry Christmas.”

“Merry Christmas, my beautiful Belle,” he whispered before trailing a line of kisses from her earlobe down to her breasts.

“Mmmmm,” she murmured as she arched into him. She eagerly began to return his kisses when he pulled away from her. Feeling hurt that he had seemingly reject her, she stiffened up.

“No,” Shawn said and kissed her full lips once more. “I want nothing more than to continue this, but I wanted to give you something in private before the munchkin got wind of us being awake.” He rolled over and opened the drawer to the nightstand on his side of the bed. He handed her an envelope, almost not daring to look at her as she opened it. He couldn’t remember ever being this nervous around Belle before—not even when he’d proposed to her.

Belle propped herself up on one elbow and opened the simple white envelope. Inside, Shawn had written a letter to her, his masculine handwriting as beautiful to her eyes as if he had given her a pair of diamond earrings.

“My Beautiful Belle,

I have put you through so much, and for that I’m truly sorry. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately, and I realized that I’ve spent an awful lot of time feeling sorry for myself, and not enough time listening to you. All I could see was how unfair it was that I was so good at my job, and I lost it all because of one man’s jealousy towards me. I wanted it all back. I wanted it all to be like it used to be. And yet, I realized something. Losing my job gave me something I don’t think I ever would have had; time with my daughter. I traveled so much before that I know I missed out on so much of her life. So this is my present to you: I talked to your father. I mean, really talked to him. I believe that he did not want things to happen this way for me, for us. He cares about all of us so much, and I let my pride get in the way of letting him help us through our hard times. For that I’m deeply sorry.

If you still want to go to school, your father is more than willing to help you. It is not my place to tell you not to do that, not when it could make you happy and help us all at the same time. I support whatever decision you make. I just want you to be happy. I want to see that bounce back in your step, the shine in your beautiful blue eyes.

As for me, your father has been more than generous. I can’t believe how suspicious I have been of him, but I suppose from my point of view, it wasn’t entirely out of the realm of possibility. But, I should have known better. I have known you and your entire family almost as long as I have known my own, and I knew better. Your dad would never sabotage me like that. So, he and I struck a business deal, if you will. He will loan me the money to get my own business started. I want to start a consulting business. But once it gets off the ground and we get a cash-flow coming in, I plan on making sure some of that goes to the children’s shelter. I want our Katie to grow up knowing how to help others.

And Katie’s present…well, that will have to wait until she sees it for herself.

I am the luckiest man on the planet to have you as my wife. Never, ever doubt how much I love you.

All my love,

Shawn Douglas”

Belle looked up at her husband after she finished the letter, tears streaming down her face. “Shawn, I am SO, so proud of you.” She threw her arms around him and kissed him hard on the lips. Her heart sang with joy to see hope shining in Shawn’s dark, inky eyes. “This is all I need to be happy.”

One hour and a living room full of wrapping paper later, Shawn watched Katie as she played with a new game from Santa. He couldn’t help but notice that the little girl seemed kind of sad, melancholy. He smiled knowingly at Belle and then crawled onto the floor next to Katie. “So how did Santa treat you, pumpkin?”

Katie shrugged. “Ok I guess.” She idly fingered a pile of books that normally would have had her completely enthralled for an afternoon. “But, Daddy, I don’t believe in Santa. I guess Tommy was right after all.”

Belle joined her daughter and husband on the floor. “Why do you say that, Katie?” She pulled Katie in for a hug.

Katie blinked solemnly at her mother. “Because, Mommy. I told Santa what I wanted for Christmas, and he didn’t bring any of it.” She looked down at the floor. “I wanted you to be happy, for Daddy to have his old job, and for us to get our house back.” She pointed to her stocking, now lying on the coffee table. “And he left his key. If he is real, that is.”

“Well, then maybe you ought to give that key to me for safekeeping,” Shawn said as Katie placed the silver key in the palm of his hand. Katie tried bravely to smile, and Shawn blinked away hot, stinging moisture. “Baby,” he said as he lifted her chin with his thumb. “Sometimes, Santa can’t bring us everything we want. He has lots of children to look out for, and it wouldn’t be very nice of us to expect him to bring EVERYTHING on our list, would it?”

Katie shook her head, blonde pony tails swinging. “I guess not. But Daddy, he didn’t bring one thing I asked for.”

Shawn kissed the top of Katie’s head. “You have made Mommy and Daddy so proud, pumpkin. We love you very, very much.”

Belle smiled lovingly into her daughter’s wide brown eyes. “And Mommy IS happy, sweetheart. I have you and I have Daddy. That is all I need.”

Shawn kissed Belle, wishing he could linger just a little longer. “And remember what I said the other day? You let Daddy worry about Daddy’s job. I have it all taken care of, so I think Santa DID answer your request. Now, I want us all to get dressed. I thought we could go sledding.”

Katie’s mouth split into a huge smile. “YAY! I can’t wait to go down the hill fast!” She ran off to her bedroom to get her clothes on.

Shawn and Belle strolled, hand in hand, through the quiet snowy streets of Salem as they pulled Katie on the sled behind them. “Shawn,” Belle said quietly so that Katie wouldn’t overhear. “The sledding hill is down that street. We missed our turn.”

Shawn smiled benignly. “I suppose we did. Let’s keep going. I think Katie’s having fun.”

The little girl sat on the sled, singing “Rudolph” to herself as she watched the scenery go by.

Finally, they stopped in front of a modest, yellow Cape Cod style home. Katie jumped off of the sled and ran up to her parents. She slipped one mittened hand into her mother’s. “Mommy, why are we here? I want to go sledding.”

Shawn bent down, picked up his daughter, and then lifted her onto his shoulders. She squealed with delight as he walked up to the front door. “We just have one little stop to make first,” he said before tickling her through her coat. Although she couldn’t feel his fingers through the many layers of fabric Belle made sure she wore to keep warm, Katie still screamed with laughter.

As they stood by the front door, Shawn slid Katie back down onto the ground. Then, he smiled at his wife. He pulled Belle close to him for a kiss. “We’re just on time.”

Belle cocked her head, puzzled. Her blue eyes narrowed suspiciously. “Shawn, why do I have the feeling it’s not an accident we’re at this house?”

Katie tugged on the bottom of Shawn’s coat. “Daddy, when are we gonna go sledding?” She hopped back and forth from one foot to the other.

Shawn made a big show of knocking on the front door. After they waited for a few moments, no one answered. He then tried to open the door, which was locked. “Hmm, I guess no one is home,” he said with a wink. He grinned at Katie. “I could have sworn Santa told us to be here at…” he glanced at his watch. “…2:30 on Christmas Day.” Shawn shrugged, ignoring the quirk of Belle’s lips as comprehension of the situation dawned on her.

Katie’s eyes widened into the size of chocolate colored dinner plates. “SANTA talked to you?” She stopped hopping and stared in awe at her father. Anyone who had direct connections to Santa was cool in her book.

Shawn smiled gently at his daughter. “Well, the message was to be here at 2:30, and I figured we shouldn’t keep Santa waiting.” He stuck his hand in his pants pocket, and his eyes widened in an imitation of his child’s gesture. “Wait. Didn’t Santa leave this in your stocking?” He pulled out the key.

Her mouth open in an “o” of surprise, Katie nodded. “I thought Santa got locked out of his house.”

Shawn scrunched up his face, as if deep in thought. “Well, pumpkin,” he said after a moment or two of thought. “Maybe Santa left this key for you because he was afraid his rounds might make him late for our appointment. Here.” He handed the key to his daughter. “Why don’t you try this and see if it opens the door?”

Practically trembling with all the excitement at this new evidence of the existence of Santa, Katie slid the key into the lock on the doorknob, and with help from Belle, opened the door. She ran into the brightly lit hallway where, on a small table, the only piece of furniture in sight, lay a small piece of paper. Katie grabbed it off of the table, and then, seeing her name on it, she began to jump up and down. “Mommy! Daddy! It’s for ME!!!”

Belle, still not entirely sure what was going on, walked over to her daughter and silently read the note over Katie’s shoulder. I can’t keep crying on Christmas, she thought as tears once again threatened to spill onto her cheeks. “Why don’t you read it out loud, sweetheart?” She suggested.

Katie nodded, and taking her task very seriously, began to read. “Dear Katie, I know this is not your old house. I had to let the people that own it now still live there. But I thought this house might be ok in-in-ins??” Katie stopped at the unfamiliar word.

“Instead,” Belle prompted gently, leaning into her husband’s strong frame.

“Instead.” Katie parroted. “Your new room is up..up…stairs. I hope you like it. Love, Santa” She began jumping up and down again. Her dark eyes shimmered with delight. “Can I go see? Please can I go see what room Santa left for me?”

When Shawn nodded, she took off up the wooden stairs. He turned to face Belle, who only could stare at him in shocked silence. “Merry Christmas, Belle,” he said. He smiled at her and then kissed her on the lips. “I hope this house will suit you.”

Belle could only shake her head in disbelief. “Shawn, where did you get the money for this? We were barely making rent payments as it was. I had to scrounge and scrimp in order to buy Katie presents for Christmas.”

Shawn looked around the entryway, already envisioning Belle’s special touches that would make it feel like home. “Your father got wind of Katie’s Christmas wish. He and I put our heads together, and we came up with this as a compromise. We’ll pay him back as we’re able. He’s already got me hooked up with some of his contacts, and I hope to have my business up and running soon. I knew we wouldn’t be able to afford a house the size of our old one, and I hope this will do…it will be a while before we can recover from my losing my job. But it has a den, where you can study for your nursing classes, and it has a beautiful room with a dormer window for Katie. It has a backyard, and it will have you both living here to give me something to come home to every night.”

Belle wrapped her arms around Shawn’s waist. “I don’t know what made you let go of your anger,” she said as she hugged him tightly. “But I am so thankful you did. I couldn’t have asked for a better Christmas.”

Shawn rested his chin on top of Belle’s head, and then cupped her chin with his hand. He stared at her, struck by her natural beauty. “I think I just needed a little help from Santa.” He tenderly covered her lips with his own, delighting in how perfectly she fit. He pulled away just enough so that he could smile at her. “Merry Christmas, my Beautiful Belle.”

Joined: October 17th, 2004, 8:41 pm

February 19th, 2005, 11:13 pm #4

Renee B's Fics


Joined: October 17th, 2004, 8:41 pm

February 19th, 2005, 11:14 pm #5

Love Is So Blind

A 2005 Valentine Challenge Fic. A Shawn and Belle fic. The fic is rated R.

Joined: October 17th, 2004, 8:41 pm

February 19th, 2005, 11:15 pm #6

Chapters 1 - 4

Chapter 1

Belle Black was finishing up her last bit of make up for her dream deat with this supposely dreamy guy.She thought to her self god this is so lame what did i get myself into.But what she didnt know she was gonna find her soul mate.

On the other side of town lovely Shawn Douglas Brady was putting his final finishes on him all though he didnt need them . He was so excited he was gonna find his true love. And all he knew about her was that her name is Isabella Black , blonde hair, blue eyes , and works for Basic Black. Shawn reached into his pocket and picked up a box, once he opened it he found a beautiful 5 carat diamond ring. "Oh this is going to be a night neither Miss Black or me forget". Anf with that he opened the door and started walking out to his future.

Chapter 2 - Rated R for Language

Shawn walked through the door of Tuscany with a huge smile. He thought about Belle Blacl he knew it sounded fimialr it sounded like his old sweetheart in highschool and college. But his heart dropped when he found she broke up with him for Mr Phillip Kiriakas, that dirty old yuvky so called bestfreind.But he put all that in the past. He turned around and saw the love of his it was Belle his heart dropped those hazel eyes meet those sea blue eyes. At first Belle thought Oh shit should i leave he hates me so much.

But she thought it was now or never. "Hi Shawn" and with that Lovely shawn brady said the most cruel thinhs to here. "You slut what are you doing here, y arent you with your boyfriend Phillip" Then Belle thought she really hurt him.

"We broke up 3 years ago he cheated on me with Chloe Lane. So i thought i decided i needed some help getting over him and you."

"Oh" shawn said. He couldnt help but smil she still loves me and i still love her.

"How have you been doing Shawn" quickly hugging him. But before he could awnser the make up guy pulled belle away so he can do her make up.

All belle and shawn could think about was each other and how they missed each so badly over the years and the biggest thing there still in love each other.

What they didnt know was that tonight was gonna be the biggest day of there lives and those eight words that were gonna espace from shawns lips are gonna change there lives for ever.

Chapter 3

The night was going great shawn and belle ordered there meal and ate very quiet even though there were cameras everywhere. It was kind of weird being video taped. So now they were all finished eating and they heard there song I"ll Be . And poliely shawn asked belle if he will dance with him. "Umm yea"

Shawn slowly wrapped his arms around Belles waist as they slowly danced to the melody.

The strands in your eyes that color them wonderful
Stop me and steal my breath
Emeralds from mountains thrust towards the sky
Never revealing their depth
Tell me that we belong together
Dress it up with the trappings of love
I'll be captivated, I'll hang from your lips
Instead of the gallows of heartache that hang from above

Shawn stared at belles beautiful eyes and started remembering the good memoreis they had together and belle started to have tears in there eyes.

I'll be your cryin' shoulder
I'll be love suicide
I'll be better when I'm older
I'll be the greatest fan of your life
Rain falls angry on the tin roof
As we lie awake in my bed
You're my survival, you're my living proof
My love is alive and not dead
Tell me that we belong together
Dress it up in the trappings of love
I'll be captivated, I'll hang from your lips
Instead of the gallows of heartache that hang from above
I've dropped out, burned up, fought my way back from the dead
Tuned in, turned on, remembered the thing you said

And with the last word shawn pushed belle into a steamy kiss that meant that they will be together forever. And the camera zoomed in on them and the people watching were all awwwwwwwwing them and with that kiss they were ready to begin there live together and live happily ever after.

Chapter 4

With the last note fadeing away shawn was ready to propose.He slowly let Belle go out of his embrace.And they quickly got back to their seats.And it
was time for desert . Belle ordered a banana split and he made sure that his aunt maggie but some thing special on top of it.

The desert was coming out and shawns heart was racing so loud that even belle heard it.

"Here you go Mam" The waiter said placing the plate with a lid over it and leaving with a huge smile.

Shawn quickly stopped belle from oppening and said some thing "Belle i know
for the past couple years we havent been in touch but i still love you with all of my heart and soul and i hope you feel the same about me beacuse without you all i see is black and white"

And with those words belle formed tears in her tears and said "oh shawn i love you so much and i never stopped loving you "

Then they got up and sealed it with a kiss.

So then they sat back and belle opened the lid and belle gasped .

It was a heart that said I Love You and the memory how they first said i love you was running through her mind and that wasnt all it was a beautiful diamond ring .

Shawn quickly picked up the diamond ring and kneeled down on one knee.

"Belle ever since we were little kids i knew i loved and wanted to spend the rest of my life with you and the day you left my other half of me died and
tonight when you walked bakc through that door i knew we were gonna spend
the rest of my life with ypu growwing old raising kids raising grand chilren.
Belle will you do the honor of marring me ? "

All Belle could do was cry and she kept on saying "YES YES YES SHAWN I WILL MARRY YOU "

Shawn slipped the diamond ring on her finger and sealed it with a kiss .

And with that kiss they were gonna spend there whole lives together !!


Joined: October 17th, 2004, 8:41 pm

June 16th, 2005, 1:36 am #7

No More Barriers

A Shawn and Belle fanfic. This fic is Rated R.

Author's Note: This was written about 3-4 years ago, and at the time I started writing, JT was Shawn's brother. It was my first story! Happy reading.

Joined: October 17th, 2004, 8:41 pm

June 16th, 2005, 1:43 am #8

Chapters 1 - 5

Chapter 1

“There’s no way Dad will choose a slut like you over his own son!!” Brady snarled at Marlena, his ice blue eyes snapping with anger.

Marlena’s heart once again shattered at this young man’s palpable rage. She thought she’d been getting through to him, talking about when he was a child, and how close they’d been. She’d seen a glimmer in his eyes of the vulnerable, caring boy that he’d once been. But, it was as if Brady had a switch, and whenever she got too close, he turned it to anger for protection. She opened her mouth to say something, anything to calm his anger, when John, who had just walked into the penthouse, interrupted.

“SIT DOWN, SON!” He barked. Brady, shocked beyond belief that his father had heard what had been said, slowly lowered himself onto the couch.

“Dad...”he began, but John held up a hand. He towered over his seated son; John Black angry was a force to be reckoned with--and John was livid.

“Do you think I’ve been lying to you, Brady? DO you think I don’t mean it when I tell you I expect you to treat EVERY member of this family with respect? Do you think that talking to Marlena like that is respectful? What the hell is the matter with you?” John’s deep blue eyes narrowed on his last question to his son.

Brady looked up at his dad, pissed at himself for not being more careful, but even more pissed at his dad for not believing in him.

“Ok!! You want to know what the hell is the matter with me?” He shouted, his handsome features twisted in anger. “I’ll tell you. My life is ruined because of this woman. My dreams of playing professional ball are up in smoke. People stare at me like I’m some kind of freak, and think because I can’t walk I don’t have enough of a brain to notice their pitying stares. All because of her!” He glared up at Marlena, whose large brown eyes widened at her stepson’s words. There was, after all, a grain of truth to them, and she knew it.

“Brady,” she began, but John held up a warning hand.

“Listen to me son, and listen well. I understand your anger at your situation. I do. But you share some of the blame in this mess, and that is where it all ends. Marlena has raised you like her own, and you will respect her if for no other reason than that. I want you to apologize to her. Right now.”

Brady grabbed his crutches and pulled himself to his feet. He silently glared at his father, daring him to make his next move.

“I mean it, son.” John said softly, firmly. “Don’t test me on this one.”

Brady looked back from Marlena to his father, and something snapped.

“To hell with this!” He sneered, his voice thick with emotion. “You don’t really care what I think, who I am, or what I feel. All you care about is your precious Doc. Did she ever apologize to me, for making me into a cripple? There’s no way in hell that she even cares what she’s done to me. Your sense of respect just SUCKS!!!” Brady’s broad chest heaved with anger.

John quickly closed the gap between himself and his son.

“John!!!” Marlena cried, frantic he would hurt Brady in his anger.

John gently but firmly grabbed Brady’s arm. He leaned in so that he was only inches from Brady’s face. “Should I pretend I didn’t hear what you just said?” He asked in a dangerous whisper. “Or should I ask you to give me one good reason why I shouldn’t kick you out of this house right now?”

Brady yanked his arm from John’s grasp, stumbling a bit. “No need.” He said bitterly. “I’m outta here.”

He limped to the door and stumbled out to the elevator. Tears pricked his eyelids. Sometimes he just didn’t know who the hell he was anymore. If he was really honest with himself, the whole argument with Marlena stemmed from an extremely frustrating physical therapy session he’d had today, one of many that had not been going well. He had been exhausted, frustrated, and depressed, and had really wanted to just be alone on the balcony when Marlena had come home and insisted that they talk. Things had rapidly deteriorated from there.

Brady was so lost in his thoughts that he was surprised to find himself at the pier. His legs and back, however, had no qualms about reminding him that the mile long walk from the penthouse to the docks was too much for him, and they were throbbing. He found a bench and sat down, frustrated at the weakness in his legs. He stared out over the gently lapping water, wondering what he was going to do next. He couldn’t go home, that much was obvious. Maybe he could call Grandpa Vic....damn. He was out of town. That would have to wait, he decided. He brooded silently, allowing the weight of depression to fall on him.

“Oh, yeah, right. I was most definitely the one who won the sand box war!!!!” Belle grinned at Shawn, who eyed her with mock contempt, his deep brown eyes gleaming with mirth.

“Whatever. If you count crying to your mom that I was throwing sand on you!” He reached over and grabbed her hand.

“Hey! A lady knows that she has to win.... by whatever means possible. Thanks for agreeing with me!”

“Oh, yeah? I’ll get you for that one!” Shawn retorted, grinning.

Belle squealed, and took off running, with Shawn right behind her. He easily caught up to her, and wrapped a muscular arm around her slender waist. Both were laughing like children, and he spun her around so that she faced him. They stopped laughing, and Belle stared soulfully into Shawn’s eyes. The gleam in his eyes darkened, and he laid a gentle hand on her cheek. He rubbed her face once with his thumb, sending shivers down her spine, and she put both arms around his neck. Shawn softly tucked a stray blonde strand of hair behind her ear, and leaned down. He placed a gentle kiss on her lips, one that spoke volumes of how he truly felt about her.

Belle smiled and laid her head on his shoulder as they walked arm in arm, enjoying the perfect warm summer evening. How could this summer be any better? She wondered to herself. Shawn had FINALLY asked her to the Last Blast...and they had admitted their feelings for each other. They had yet to tell their friends, wanting for a little while to have a secret world that only belonged to the two of them.

“Hey, isn’t that Brady?” Shawn asked, startling Belle out of her reverie. She looked up to see her brother sitting on a bench at the Pier, his head propped up on one arm.

“Yeah,” she said, worried. “He really looks upset. Shawn...I...”

Shawn dropped a kiss onto the top of her head. “It’s ok,” he said softly. “Go see what’s wrong. I’ll talk to you later. You guys will be ok? I don’t see Brady’s van anywhere.”

Belle nodded. “I have my cell phone, so I’ll just call Dad or a cab or something.”

She rose up on her toes and kissed him, wishing they could stay like this forever. But, her brother needed her. Shawn squeezed her hand and watched her until she was safely close to Brady. He turned and walked towards home, whistling as his heart sang with happiness.

“Brady?” Belle asked quietly. “Are you ok?”

Brady jumped slightly, startled out of his dark thoughts.

“Belle! What are you doing out here at night?” He asked, looking up at his sister’s worried gaze.

“The question is, what are YOU doing here. You look upset. Is everything all right?”

Brady looked away from his sister, trying to sort through the myriad of emotions that he was feeling.

“Belle. Please. I need to be alone,” he said thickly.

Belle didn’t miss the slight tremble in his voice, and tried to decide what to do. “Well, I can’t do that.” She decided firmly. “Why don’t you try telling me what’s going on?”

Brady sighed in frustration. Sometimes his sister could be so damn stubborn. “Look, damn it, ” he said, trying unsuccessfully to keep the impatient note out of his voice. “I want to be alone. How hard is that to understand? Leave me alone. Just go home. Go back to dad and your perfect mother. I’m sick and tired of your Pollyanna act. I don’t need you or your pity. Just leave me the hell alone!”

Brady heard Belle’s intake of breath, and would have kicked himself if he could. He hadn’t meant to be so harsh with her.

However, instead of walking away, Belle flopped down on the bench next to her brother. “Has anyone ever told you what a louse you can be?” She demanded, her blue eyes identical to his snapping. “You can be as nasty as you want to be to me, big brother. You aren’t going to scare me away with your big mouth, although sometimes I’d love nothing more than to stuff a dirty sock into it! Talk to me, Brady.”

To her dismay, the angry mask that Brady wore crumpled, and tears began rolling down his cheeks. Belle wordlessly put her arms around her big brother and just held him as he sobbed. She’d never seen him fall apart like this...not even in the hospital when he’d first found out he was paralyzed. He’d always put on such a strong front for her sake, and she knew it. She intuitively let him cry, saying nothing to him. She let him be the one to speak first.

“Sorry, Tink. I didn’t mean to be such a jerk. I’ve had a hell of a day.” He self-consciously wiped tears from his cheeks.

Belle mock punched him in the arm. “What are little sisters for?” She asked lightly. “At least you know that you’re a jerk!” She teased, and was rewarded by a slight smile on her brother’s face.

Brady waited for quite a while before he spoke again. “Belle, I’m going to tell you something I haven’t even told Dad yet,” he began quietly. “I’m not getting any better. For the past month, nothing has changed, no matter how hard I work.”

Belle’s heart leapt up into her throat at her brother’s words. “But, Brady, it’s going to take time. They told you that, didn’t they? This is just a minor setback!”

Brady half smiled at Belle and shook his head. “I wish. It’s funny, you know, how the use of language gives you so many clues to what’s really going on. The doctors have been saying more and more that they’re worried about how extensive the damage was that the bullet caused. It’s been a wait and see game all along, and I guess I’m losing. Badly. Carl keeps talking in terms of how “lucky” I am compared to some, and to focus on that.” He paused, looking out over the water. “You know, he used to talk to me about getting back on the playing field, and what that would feel like some day. He’s never guaranteed anything, but now he’s stopped talking about it all together.”

Belle’s eyes filled with tears. “Oh, Brady,” she said softly. “Maybe you’re misunderstanding them. Reading too much into it. You can’t give up, don’t you get that? I’m here for you...and so are Dad and my mom, if you’ll let them.”

Brady laughed humorlessly. “Yeah. Just wait. It gets better. Today, I had a horrible PT session. I couldn’t do half of the exercises that I could do yesterday, and I could see how worried this was making Carl. He tried very hard to be encouraging, but I knew better. So, I get home, and just want to sit out on the terrace and think. I had decided to talk to Dad about this, because it’s starting to scare the hell out of me. Who should come home but your mother, and she decides that she wants to make peace and talk. I asked her--not very nicely, I admit--to just leave me alone, and she wouldn’t. So, we got into this huge argument. Belle, Dad came home, and heard what I said to her.”

Belle interrupted. “What did you say, Brady? Tell me you weren’t a total jerk to her!”

Brady shook his head at her. “Don’t interrupt. I was not nice, and we’ll just leave it at that. Dad jumped on me about it, and was really angry with me. Basically, I ended up getting kicked out of the house.”

Belle looked at him in surprise. “Brady! How could you be so stupid? Why didn’t you tell them what you just told me? They’d understand!!!” She demanded, scared for him and angry at him at the same time. “Where are you going to go? What are you gong to do? Why would you go and do such a thing?”
Brady had had enough. He pushed himself to his feet, ignoring the pain the motion caused his stiff body. “Thanks, Tink. I thought you were on my side. Why don’t you just go home. Tell Dad I’ll be by later to get my stuff.”

“Brady...” Belle began, but he ignored her and began limping away. It was so hard to see her brother like this, she thought. She knew that it was hard on him, not being able to run and play football like he used to. She looked out over the water, debating whether or not to go after him. Lately, she’d been having trouble reading him, and now that he’d told her what was bothering him, his moods made more sense. He needed her right now, she decided, and turned to look for him. She was just in time to see Brady trip and fall on his back on the hard wood of the pier.

“Brady!!!!” She shouted, and took off running towards him. He managed to get himself sitting up by the time she’d reached him.

“I’m fine,” he panted as she knelt down next to him.

Belle looked at him, alarmed. His skin took on a white pallor in the dim moonlit summer night. He closed his eyes against the pain, and he made a fist, trying hard to concentrate on that.

“Let me help you up,” she said, trying to keep the panic she felt out of her voice. Brady nodded. Normally when Brady fell, he refused any help and got right back on his feet. She’d never seen him like this before, and it scared her. She gathered his crutches and lifted him under the arm. Together, they slowly got him back on his feet, and she kept a steady hand under his elbow until they made it back to the bench. They sat silently on the bench as Brady’s breathing gradually returned to normal. Belle lightly touched him on the arm.

“You ok?” She asked, and he nodded. “How’s your back? That was a big spill, Brady.”

Brady looked at her, and she could see the exhaustion written all over his face. “It hurts like hell, Tink, but I should be fine after a good night’s sleep.”

“I’m calling Dad,” Belle told him as she dug in her purse for her cell phone. Brady’s eyes widened in alarm.

“NO!!! Don’t do that. I don’t want to see Dad.” He insisted, running a long fingered hand through his blond hair.

Belle gave him a scathing look and turned her cell phone on. “If you’re afraid to deal with Dad because your big mouth got you into trouble, TOO BAD! You’re hurting, Brady, and you’re exhausted. There’s no way I’m leaving you to spend the night here. You need to lie down in your own bed, and I don’t think Dad will disagree with me on that one. If I didn’t love you so much, I’d leave you here!” She grumbled as she dialed the phone.

John, frantic with worry, jumped up to answer the phone.

“Brady?” He said, and was answered by his daughter’s tears on the other end. “Sweetheart! What’s wrong? Just calm down, honey, and tell me what’s wrong. Are you ok?”

“Dad! It’s Brady. Shawn and I were walking near the pier tonight and we found Brady. I think he walked all the way here from home. He’s exhausted, and he just took a nasty fall. I don’t know what to do---he told me what happened at home, Dad, but he’s in a lot of pain! He needs to lay down.”

“Shhh! Sweetheart,” John soothed, worry lining his face. “Don’t worry about what happened at home tonight. I’ll be there in a few minutes. Just stay with him, and keep him off of his feet, ok?”

“Ok,” Belle sniffed, and turned off the phone.

Brady stared sullenly over the water. “Thanks, Tink,” he said softly. “I’m sorry you had to get in the middle of this.”

Belle laid her head on his shoulder. “I’m part of this family, too, Brady. Just remember that I love you, ok?”

“Well, well, well! What a cozy scene we have here!” A deep voice cooed nastily.

Chapter 2

Brady turned to see a large man with long greasy brown hair tied back in a ponytail and light colored eyes, thick arms crossed, leering at his sister. Damn! He thought, trying not to panic. They should have decided to wait for their dad in the nearby well-lit and well-populated park. He tightened his arm around Belle’s shoulders, and she shivered.

The man laid a large meaty hand on Belle’s arm. Noticing a tattoo of a cobra on the intruder’s forearm, Brady firmly removed his hand. “Hey, man. She’s not interested,” he said calmly, not giving away the mounting fear he felt inside, and not losing eye contact. The man eyed Brady’s large size and muscular build. He looked him up and down slowly, measuring him. From all appearances, Brady was the stronger man. He was very fit, worked out constantly, and looked it. The intruder was large, dressed in a dirty white tank and jeans, but not muscular. But the man grinned evilly when he spotted Brady’s crutches lying on the ground. He walked around to the front of the bench and faced them, his arms once again folded.

“Hey, I’ve never gotten to beat up a cripple before!” He said gleefully. “This could turn out to be better than I thought!” He reached for Belle’s arm, and Brady again removed his hand.

“Look, she’s not interested,” Brady repeated, real fear making his heart pound. “We don’t want any trouble here. Do you want money? We’ll give you however much you want.”

The man sneered at Brady and grabbed Belle’s arm. He slowly eyed her up and down, his gaze lingering on her slender legs. He forced her to her feet and pulled her close to him.

“Brady!!!!!” She screamed, tears spilling over onto her cheeks.

That was all Brady needed. He grabbed his crutches and got to his feet. “Let her go!” He demanded. “She’s just a kid.”

The man leered at Belle, rubbing his hand on her arm as she tried desperately to shrink away from him. “I wish all kids came the way this little beauty does.”

He turned cold, soulless eyes on Brady, and for the first time in his life, Brady really understood what it meant to taste fear. It was metallic, overwhelming, unrelenting, and merciless. “And just what are you going to do to stop me?” The intruder asked stonily, laughing at the thought of Brady on his crutches trying to physically outdo him. Keeping his hand wrapped around Belle’s arm, the man took a step closer to Brady, who tried very hard to block out Belle’s pale face, her blue eyes wide with fear and panic, so that he could think clearly. Brady summoned up all of his strength and dropped a crutch, freeing one of his arms. He reached for Belle, intending on using every ounce of strength he still possessed on pulling his sister out of the maniac’s grasp.

The man smiled and quickly pulled a hunting knife from his belt. Brady dropped his arm and truly began to panic. Oh, God, he thought, this can’t be happening. There’s no telling what this monster is going to do to my sister, and I can’t do a damn thing to stop him! Please, Dad, get here soon, he prayed. Hurry! “Look,” Brady said, reasonably, trying to keep the desperation out of his voice. “You can do whatever you want to me. Just let her go.”

The man laughed softly, sending shivers up and down Brady’s spine. Belle whimpered. “Let’s just say that crips aren’t my type,” He grinned coldly. He let Belle go and turned his attention to Brady.

Brady took the opportunity to catch Belle’s eye and yelled to his sister. “RUN, BELLE!!!!!!” He shouted. “Dad’s coming--he’ll be here any minute. Now get the hell outta here!!!”

The man’s glare turned red with anger. “Now you’ve made me mad, crip!” He grabbed Brady’s free arm and pushed him over. White-hot pain shot through Brady’s back as he landed once again on the hard surface of the pier. He yanked Brady to his feet, holding him up by his arm, and said slowly to Belle, “I wouldn’t run if I were you, Belle. See, I have a knife, and if you run, I kill him. That’s how it works.”

Brady, trying hard to ignore the waves of pain shooting down his back, and to force his trembling legs to hold his weight without his crutches, was breathing very hard. “GO, Belle! Don’t worry about me--I’m a tough bastard. Now go and get out of here!”

Belle stared wildly at her brother, fear filling every fiber of her being. She didn’t know what to do. The man sensed this, and turned his knife so that it gleamed and glinted in the moonlight. He slowly smiled at her.

“Do you think I’m kidding, Belle?” He asked softly, dangerously. “You should learn to never doubt what I say, little beauty.” He suddenly turned and plunged the knife into Brady’s abdomen.

“AAAH!” Brady yelled and doubled over in pain. The man let go of him and he fell once again to the docks, clutching his stomach with both hands. Belle screamed and ran to her brother. She knelt down next to him and gently brushed the hair from his sweat-beaded forehead. “G-g-g-o!” Brady shuddered, his terrified eyes begging her to do as he asked. The man, his eyes wild, shoved Belle away from her brother and again stabbed Brady with his knife.
Belle sank to her knees and watched in mute horror as he repeatedly stabbed her brother. Brady had stopped moving, and she wasn’t sure he was even still breathing. “Brady!!!” She screamed. “NOOOO!!!! Stop!! You’re killing him!” She begged. “Please! I’m not going anywhere!!!”

The man turned and looked at her, blood all over the front of his shirt. He slowly smiled at her, his eyes crazy and yet calculating. “So now you’re ready to listen to reason, are you, Belle? Never doubt me,” he said coldly, stood up, and returned his knife to the sheath on his belt. He grabbed Belle with a bloody hand and yanked her to her feet.

“Please,” she begged, sobbing, tears streaming down her cheeks, her hair wild and tangled. “Call 911. He’s going to bleed to death. Please!!!!”

The man eyed Brady, still motionless in a growing pool of blood and shrugged. “No, little beauty, I don’t think so. You and I have far more important business to attend to!” He raised a fist, hit Belle over the head, and she lost consciousness. He effortlessly picked her up and disappeared into the night.

Chapter 3

John jumped out of his car and ran to the docks, silently cursing the parking attendant that HAD to be on his break when he needed to leave their apartment building’s parking garage quickly. As he neared the pier, he was still trying to decide whether or not the desire to hug or to strangle his son was stronger. Damn, had that boy ever inherited his stubborn streak! But, as he approached the area where he thought his children would be, he saw no one. The hair on the back of his neck immediately stood on end.

“Brady, Belle!” He called, alarmed that he didn’t see them on the bench where Belle said they’d be waiting. Something was very wrong, his instincts told him, and he looked over to the opposite side of the bench from where he stood. Behind some clumsily scattered crates lay Brady in a pool of blood. The shimmering moonlight only served to enhance the contrast of Brady’s deathly pale skin against the rapidly spreading crimson stain, and John prayed that his son was still alive.

“Oh, God,” he whispered. “Oh, no! No, no, no!!!” He angrily kicked the crates out of the way as he neared his son. “Brady! Son! Can you hear me? Answer me, son!”

His heart pounding, he grabbed his cell phone from his pocket and called 911 as he knelt down next to his son. He tried hard not to panic at seeing so much of his son’s blood on the ground. He leaned down to see if Brady was breathing, and closed his eyes briefly when he realized that Brady had what appeared to be numerous stab wounds up and down his body. His heart squeezed painfully at the thought of the terror and pain that his son must have just gone through. He felt a faint pulse at Brady’s neck, and told the dispatcher as much detail as he could about his son’s condition. He took off his sweatshirt and covered Brady, trying desperately to help his son stay warm enough to keep from going into shock. He stood up, frantically searching for signs of his daughter.

“Belle!” He shouted. “Sweetheart, you can come out. Dad’s here. Come on out, honey. You don’t have to be afraid any more.” No response. “Belle, damn it! Answer me, sweetheart! Belle!” He noticed Belle’s purse lying on the ground next to the bench. Why was Belle’s purse here, and where the hell was his daughter? He scanned carefully the entire pier, taking in the various sizes of crates lying around, and saw no sign of his daughter. There really wasn’t any place for her to hide, and every instinct he had told him she was in horrible trouble. Fear for both his children consumed him, and he had to really force himself to think clearly, to push all the “what if...” scenarios out of his mind.

“Dad....” Brady whispered, interrupting his thoughts. John’s heart leapt with joy that his son was awake and he knelt down and took Brady’s hand in his. He gently pushed Brady’s hair away from his forehead and smiled. “I’m here, son. The ambulance is coming, kid. They’re going to take you to the hospital. Hang tight.”

“Dad...” Brady whispered again, more urgently this time. His normally bright blue eyes were dull from pain and full of fear.

“Shhh! Take it easy. Don’t try to talk, Brady.” John said softly, trying not to let his son see how frightened he was. But Brady shook his head, wincing at the pain it caused.

“Belle’s in trouble. Call the police. He took her.” Alarm coursed through John’s body.

“Took her? Who, son? Who took her?” John studied Brady carefully. He was in tremendous pain, but John could tell that his son knew exactly what he was saying.

“The man who did this to me. Dad...she’s scared. Find her.”

Brady’s breathing became more labored, and John laid a reassuring hand on his arm. “Ok, son. We’ll find her. Don’t worry. You just rest and hang in there.” Brady’s eyes flickered shut as he lost consciousness.

John tore his hand through his dark hair, struggling to contain his composure. He reached in his pocket for his cell phone. He dialed the police station and asked to speak to Bo Brady.

“Brady here,” Bo’s voice answered.

“Bo. John Black. Look, I’m here at the pier with Brady, he’s been stabbed, and I think someone has abducted Belle--I c--” John could barely contain the panic in his deep voice.

“Damn! Look, I’ll be right there. Be there as fast as we can,” Bo said quickly and hung up.

The ambulance arrived as John finished his conversation with Bo, and the paramedics ran over to Brady. “Be careful of his back,” John said, worry clouding his strong features. “He’s recovering from a spinal cord injury.” One of the paramedics nodded in response and began working to stabilize Brady. They firmly asked John to step back from his son so that they could help him, and it took every ounce of John’s willpower to do as they asked. John watched the surreal scene as the paramedics placed an oxygen mask over Brady’s mouth. Quietly discussing the best course of action to take to help Brady, they gently lifted him onto the stretcher and hooked up an IV to his arm.

Howling sirens and flashing blue and red lights signaled the arrival of the Salem Police. Bo Brady jumped out of his car and ran over to where John stood helplessly watching the paramedics trying to save his son’s life. Bo clasped John on the shoulder, giving his silent support.

“We’ll find her,” he said quietly, watching as Brady’s life hung precariously in the balance. “That bastard can’t have gotten too far. How’s Brady? Is he conscious?”

John shook his head. “He’s lost a lot of blood. He was awake long enough to tell me that Belle was in trouble, thank God, or we may not have known what happened to her. We know it was a man that took her, and that she’s scared out of her mind...” John walked over to a nearby streetlight and smacked it with his palm. “Damn it, Bo! That son of a bitch has nearly killed my son--”John choked on those last words and Bo laid a brotherly hand on John’s arm. John shook Bo’s hand off and turned to face him, his face a mask of fear and anguish. “He has my baby girl, my Isabella. God--all I can think of is how scared Belle must be. If he so much as lays a hand on her, I swear to God...”

Bo looked at his friend with compassion. “Have faith. Look, John, there’s nothing more you can do here. Go be with your son. He needs you right now.”
John shook his head, the fury in his eyes deepening them to indigo. “No! There’s no way in HELL I’m going anywhere until we find my daughter. I’m going to help find her--I have to find her!!!”

Bo grabbed John by the shoulder and forced him to look him in the eyes. “Listen to me, damn it! Roman and I and the rest of the damn police force will be here looking for Belle, looking for any clues to where she could be. Brady is about to be taken to the hospital and from the looks of it is in very serious condition. HE needs you right now, and I think Belle would say the same thing to you. Go with your son. When he’s out of the woods, then you can be of some help to us. But now Brady needs you. Go!”

“Sir?” One of the paramedics said to John. “We’re ready to go.”

“Yeah,” John said, completely spent, and turned to watch them as they wheeled his son on a gurney to the waiting ambulance. One of the paramedics held up an IV as he walked along side of Brady, and John ran to join them in the ambulance. He held his son’s hand and softly talked to him the whole way, reassuring him that he would be fine.

Chapter 4

Darkness. Smothering darkness. As Belle slowly opened her eyes, she winced at the pain in her head. Why did her head hurt anyway? She felt around the back of her head, and felt a very tender knot. Where was she, and why was it so dark here--wherever “here” was? She sat up and tried to force the fog out of her brain so that she could think clearly. She closed her eyes, and a vivid image of her brother, covered in blood, his eyes frantic jumped into place. Oh, God, she thought. Brady.... the intruder...and everything that had happened came rushing back to her. Brady...did she even still have a brother? That horrific thought terrified her. Hot tears spilled over onto her cheeks as she thought of her beloved older brother. Please, God, let him be ok. Let Dad have found him in time. He has to be ok--he’d been through more than his share of hell this year. She wrapped her arms around her knees, trying to comfort herself with the thought that Dad would surely have found Brady. He just had to.

She wiped the tears away and forced herself to try and figure out her situation. By now her eyes had adjusted to the darkness of the room where she lay. She was on the floor, and it was a small room, likely a closet of some sort. She could just make out an outline of light around what she guessed was the door. Her mouth was dry and felt like it was filled with cotton. Come on, Belle, she chided herself. You’re not John Black’s daughter for nothing! Now, think! She got up on her knees and started feeling around for the doorknob when she heard the heavy creaking of footsteps approach the door. Instinctively, she scrambled away from the door, placing herself as far away from danger as the tiny room/closet would allow. Her heart began pounding, as images of the man filled her mind. His eyes. Oh, those terrible, awful eyes. She’d never seen such humanless eyes in all of her life. It was like he was a parasite, feeding on others’ pain. As long as she lived, she didn’t think she’d ever be able to forget the mad excitement in his eyes as he had repeatedly stabbed Brady, relishing in her brother’s agony and fear. And the look he turned on her. She shivered, trying to escape the memory of the intense lust he had focused on her. She could still feel his cold clammy fingers on her arm, and it made her skin crawl. She shuddered, and unconsciously rubbed her arm, trying to make the feel of his fingers go away. The door creaked open, and she squinted up into the bright light.

“Well, now, little beauty. I see you’re awake. I trust you slept well?” The man knelt down and smiled at her, his stony gray eyes slowly traveling up and down her body. “Come, now. Come away from the corner. It’s not nice to be so rude to your host.”

Belle sat pressed as far into the corner as she could get, literally paralyzed with fear. She stared at him, her wide blue eyes reflecting a kind of fear that no 17 year old should know. Oh, Lord, she thought, trying to keep a reign on her mounting panic, he still wore the dirty white tank that was covered in Brady’s blood, and, unbelievably, he had changed into a pair of shorts.

The man suddenly pounded his leg with a large fist, and Belle jumped. “Listen up, little beauty, and listen good,” he whispered, narrowing his eyes as he spoke. “You DON’T want to make me mad. You saw what I did to your crippled boyfriend on the pier, didn’t you? And I wasn’t even mad. Not really. Just a little irritated.” His thin lips slowly curved into an evil smirk. “And, I still have to decide what to do with you. After all, you saw me kill someone. Can’t leave any witnesses. So, don’t MAKE ME MAD!!” He leaned into her face as he snarled the last sentence.

Belle could smell the insanity radiating off of him, a cold, cloying stench. Think, Belle! She shouted to herself. You have to get away from this monster, and you won’t get away if you’re panicked. “Um... I think we had a little misunderstanding,” she began, willing her voice to remain steady and calm.

The man, startled to hear her speak, settled back on his haunches to listen. “Yeah? And just what might that “misunderstanding” be?” He asked sharply.

“The man you--killed--”she forced herself to choke out those awful words. “--he was my brother, not my boyfriend. I--I don’t have a boyfriend,” she lied, thinking of Shawn’s beautiful, kind brown eyes.

Instead of pacifying the man as she had hoped, it only seemed to anger him further. He reached in the closet and grabbed her roughly by the arm. He dragged her down a narrow hallway into a large room, and Belle had to fight to stay upright as she stumbled along behind him. The dimly lit room, which from the cinder block walls appeared to be a basement room of some sort, contained junk-laden shelves lining the walls and one rickety wooden ladder-back chair. He shoved her into the chair and towered over her, his round face blotted and contorted with rage.

“DON’T EVER EVER LIE TO ME, BITCH!” He screamed, his eyes wild with fury. Belle shrank away from him, her hands clenched in her lap in terror. He walked away from her, panting, and then turned to face her. It was like he had flipped a switch, and the rage he had vented on her was gone just as quickly as it appeared. He seemed calm and in control, except for the steely glint in his eyes. “Now, little beauty,” he said reasonably. “You really don’t want to make me mad, remember? I tell you what. I’m willing to forgive you that little lie. But you’ll have to do me a favor in return. Are we agreed?”

Every cell in Belle’s body wanted to scream and rant and rave at this lunatic. He had most likely killed her brother in cold blood, and SHE was supposed to feel glad he would forgive her? Hey, you’re still alive, Belle, she reminded herself. Brady would want it to stay that way. Just play along with him. Tell him what he wants to hear. She nodded, not trusting her voice, and took a second to study her surroundings more carefully. Tucked back in the corner, behind the man stood an old wooden staircase, confirming her suspicion that they were in a basement.

He smiled, apparently satisfied. “Ah, what a smart one you are. I knew I could count on you. Well, we’ll figure out what favor you’ll do for me later. Right now, we have some business to attend to.” He turned around, went to a nearby shelf, and began rooting around in a small metal box.

Now or never, Belle, she told herself. While his back was turned, she jumped up off of the chair, tipping it over in her haste. The man quickly spun around to see Belle bolting for the staircase.

“That’s IT, bitch,” he snarled, dropping the box, and took off after her.
Her heart pounding, she flew up the stairs, not even daring to turn around to see how quickly her captor was gaining on her. All she could think about was getting to the door at the top of the stairs. She yanked as hard as she could on the doorknob, but it wouldn’t turn. Sobbing, she yanked again, and screamed when she felt the man’s steely grip around her ankle. All of the rage, anger, and terror she had endured welled up inside of her, and she whirled around on the man.

His eyes gleamed with the delight of the chase. He laughed, knowing there was no way a 110-pound girl could out maneuver a 200-pound man.

“NOOOO!” She screamed, and threw her entire body into kicking his hand off of her leg. It was enough of a surprise to throw him off balance, and he lost his grip on both her leg and the staircase. He tumbled backwards down the stairs, landing with a sickening thud on the cold cement floor.

Belle furiously shoved her hair out of her eyes and tried cranking the doorknob again. This time, it turned, and she shoved with all her might against the door. It opened into a foul-smelling kitchen that looked as if it had never been cleaned. Trash overflowed from two trashcans, and dirty dishes were stacked in the sink and on all of the counters.

“Phone,” she cried. “Gotta find a phone!” She frantically searched the kitchen, and discovered an old black rotary phone hidden behind a pile of plates. She sent the plates crashing to the ground with a sweep of her arm and picked up the receiver. “Please, God, let it work. It has to work!”

Tears of joy rolled down her cheeks as she was welcomed by a dial tone. She quickly dialed her phone number, praying someone, anyone, would be there to answer.

Her mother’s calm voice answered. “Hello? Black residence?”

“MOM!” She sobbed. “Mom...come and get me out of here!”

“Belle?? BELLE!!!” Marlena cried into the phone. “Oh, God, sweetie, is that you? Are you all right? Where are you?”

“I’m so scared, mom. He--he’s crazy. I don’t know where I am. A house somewhere. I was in the basement, but I got out. I---”

“Woah, Belle. Slow down. Take a deep breath. I don’t understand you. Now, can you look out a window? Tell me what you see,” Marlena’s calm voice didn’t give away the abject terror she felt.

Belle looked out the window over the sink. “Just a backyard. A big wooden fence. I don’t know what to look for. I want to go home. Mom, come get me!” Belle began sobbing again.

Suddenly, the phone was ripped from her hand. Every nerve ending in her body screamed with fright as Belle turned around to see her captor, his eyes maniacal with rage.

“Oh, little beauty. That was a mistake,” he said as he hung up the phone, shaking his head. “Such a mistake. NOW, you’ve made me mad! Very mad.”

He grabbed her arm, and dragged her back to the basement.

Chapter 5

Shawn walked in the back door of his house and into the kitchen. After he’d left Belle with Brady, he’d taken advantage of the calm balmy evening to simply wander where his feet led him on his way home. Everywhere he looked, he saw the most beautiful pair of crystal blue eyes, her golden hair, and her dazzling smile that would light up any room. Damn, Brady, he thought. What a ridiculous sap you are!!! Still whistling, and with that same self-described idiot grin on his face that he’d been wearing for the past week since he had asked Belle to the dance, he headed directly for the freezer and grabbed the last pint of Ben and Jerry’s Strawberry Britannica, a hot commodity in the Brady household. He opened the lid, to make sure there was actually enough ice cream left for a decent snack. Bonanza!! Strawberries and chocolate.... and...Belle.... mmm... He shook his head and reminded himself that one must use a spoon in order to eat ice cream. He grabbed a spoon out of the drawer by the sink and settled himself at the kitchen table, spoon poised and ready to dig in.

“Hold it right there!” Hope’s amused voice startled Shawn as she entered the kitchen from upstairs and he watched, embarrassed as his spoon clattered noisily to the floor. Hope gave him a knowing grin, picked the spoon up off of the floor, and went to the drawer to retrieve 2 more spoons. She wordlessly handed Shawn a clean spoon, pulled out the chair next to Shawn’s, and sat down. She motioned for him to give her the ice cream container. “Ok, cough it up,” she said gruffly, trying her hardest to sound stern and commanding, but the affectionate twinkle in her brown eyes immediately gave her away. Shawn grinned at his mother and grudgingly handed over the coveted ice cream pint.

“You know,” he said, “We could use dishes and BOTH eat at the same time...”
Hope dug her spoon into the ambrosia that was Ben and Jerry’s and gave him a thoughtful stare. She passed the ice cream back to her oldest son. “Yeah, but why?” She raised an inquiring eyebrow at him, popped the spoon into her mouth, and shrugged.

Shawn shook his head at his mother’s goofy antics. This had evolved into a ritual at the Brady home with he and his mother ever since JT’s birth 2 years ago. She’d check on JT after she’d put him down for the night, and then eventually the two of them would end up at the kitchen table with a pint of ice cream. Hope truly cherished the chats that transpired over the ice cream. It gave her some much-needed time with Shawn, and it gave him a chance to really talk to his mother without interfering with his “tough guy” image.

Shawn dug a lump of ice cream out of the pint, rooting around for one of the rare pieces of shortbread scattered throughout the container. Hope mock glared at him as his spoon emerged from the container, sporting a cookie.
“So THAT’S where all of those have disappeared to!” She declared. She impatiently gestured for him to hand her the ice cream, and began searching for her own shortbread.

“You know,” she said casually, still digging around with her spoon. “You CAN tell your old mom who put that far-away look in your eyes. A-HA! The last one!!!” Hope triumphantly held up her prize and grinned unabashedly at her son whose handsome face was twisted with embarrassment and a strong desire to sink into the floor.

“Mom!” He whined...instantly horrified at how much like a girl he had just sounded. He balefully propped his head on his palms, his deep chocolate eyes flustered. He glared at his mother, and she laughed, gently touching his cheek with the palm of her hand. “I’m sorry, sweetie. I don’t mean to embarrass you. I’ve just never seen you look so happy, and that makes your mom happy.” She smiled lovingly at him. “So...is Belle as happy as you are?” She asked sneakily.

Shawn nodded dreamily, absently fingering the earring in his ear.

“Yeah...I hope so, anyway...” As soon as the words were out of his mouth, he knew he’d been had. His mom sat there next to him at the table, her chin innocently propped on her folded hands, smiling serenely at him. He had to give it to her, he thought grudgingly. She was the master.

“Shawn-D,” she said softly, using his childhood nickname. “I don’t think you nor Belle have any idea how we...”

The front door suddenly crashed open, and Shawn and Hope both jumped up from the table, ice cream completely forgotten. They rushed into the living room to see Bo, cell phone in hand, carrying on an urgent conversation.

“How is he?” He paused, motioning to Hope to come over as he listened. “Ok. Look, John, she’s right here. I’ll send her over to be with Marlena as soon as Mom and Pop arrive to watch JT. Hang in there, we’ll be there as soon as we can.” Bo quickly turned his cell phone off and looked at Hope. He then noticed his oldest son standing uncertainly in the doorway to the living room.

“We need to sit down,” he said to Shawn and Hope, and they all took a seat on the couch.
Bo ran a tired hand through his hair and cleared his throat.

“God, where to begin...Shawn, this is going to be very hard to hear, son.”
Shawn stared at his dad, fear beginning to build inside of him.

“What?” He asked, brown eyes wide, but Bo shook his head and waved his hand, indicating for Shawn not to interrupt.

“Tonight. At the Pier. Some man attacked Brady with a knife. He’s in surgery right now. I just talked to John, Brady’s in very serious condition, and they don’t expect him to be out of surgery for at least another 3 or 4 hours. That man, after he attacked Brady, abducted Belle. “

Shawn’s heart leapt into his throat at his father’s words. Bad enough that Brady was in the hospital fighting for his life. But, oh, God, he thought frantically. Belle. Let her be ok. She HAD to be ok.... they’d just found each other. She had to be all right. In a motion just like his father’s, he ran his hand through his thick brown hair.

“Oh, God!” Hope echoed Shawn’s thoughts, her eyes filling with tears. “Is there any word on where she might be? Oh, that poor baby!!”

Bo stood up and began pacing the living room floor. “Actually, apparently Belle called home about half an hour ago. She managed to get away from that bastard long enough to make a phone call, and called home. Thank God for caller ID...we have a trace running on the phone number she called from, and hopefully we’ll know something soon. I--”

Shawn had stopped listening to what his father had to say. It’s all my fault, he thought. I knew that the docks could be dangerous at night, and that Brady was in no shape to protect himself and his sister if they got into trouble. I should have stayed with them, and then I could have helped. Or it probably wouldn’t have happened at all--not with two big guys sitting with Belle. Belle. The very unwelcome image of her beautiful face filled with terror invaded his mind, and he crammed his fists into his eyes, trying his hardest to make it go away. I have to save her, he thought. I have to.
“What, sweetie?” Hope asked, rubbing his back. Shawn looked up at his mother in surprise. He hadn’t realized that he’d spoken his thoughts out loud.

Shawn stood up, and shook his head. He had to get away. “I said I have to put the ice cream away,” he mumbled, and took off for the kitchen, leaving his parents staring after him.

With a loud commotion at the front door, Shawn Sr. and Caroline barged into the living room. Everyone began talking at once. At the same time, Bo’s beeper went off, and he called the station.

“That’s it!! Damn...that’s IT! I’m on my way!!!” Bo’s elated voice carried into the kitchen. He addressed the now quiet members of his family in the living room. “They got a positive ID on the address where Belle called from. I have to get going NOW! Pop, can you take Hope to be with Marlena? John didn’t want her to wait alone. Mom, thanks for coming to stay with my sons. Ok....”

Shawn dropped the ice cream container on the table. He had to help Belle. It was his fault she was in trouble. He quietly sneaked out the back door and went around to the front of the house where his dad’s car was parked. Praying that it was unlocked, he opened the back door and crawled in, lying down on the floor in the back of the car. He made himself as small as he could, and prayed his father would be so anxious to get going that he wouldn’t notice his son in the back until it was too late. Just then, Bo jumped into the car, turned the keys in the ignition, and they sped off into the night.

Hang on, Belle, he thought frantically. We’re coming. Just hang in there.

Joined: October 17th, 2004, 8:41 pm

June 16th, 2005, 1:46 am #9

A Shawn and Belle fanfic. This fic is Rated R.

Author's Note: This was written about 3-4 years ago, and at the time I started writing, JT was Shawn's brother. It was my first story! Happy reading.
Chapters 6 - 10

Chapter 6

Thirty-five thousand feet. Amazing, she thought, as she gazed out her window at all of the white cottony clouds that the Boeing 757 sailed through. Here she sat, far above the world and all of its troubles. Every now and then, she could get a glimpse through a hole in the clouds of the earth below, and it looked so beautiful, so untouched. Hard to believe so much anguish could be down there in what looked like paradise. She sighed deeply, and turned away from the window. She looked in surprise to see that a magazine, long forgotten, lay unopened on her lap. She ruefully picked it up, and reached down under the seat in front of her to stuff it back into her carry on bag. She was finally returning to Salem, after having spent the last 3 years of her life away. Butterflies swirled in her stomach at the thought of Salem. Or, rather, WHO was in Salem--at least she thought he was still in Salem. Brady Black. The man she'd been in love with ever since she had decided that boys were not disgusting creatures that should never have been put on this earth. She smiled sadly at the memory of his handsome face and gorgeous smile, that devilish twinkle in his amazing blue eyes. After she left Salem, they'd been in touch almost every day by e-mail and, in addition, they wrote letters almost weekly. Normally, distance served to make a relationship drift. Not them. They'd become closer than ever, and she'd really come to rely and depend on Brady, whom had been a dear friend of hers for years before they'd ever admitted their feelings for each other. All of that had come to a sudden, screeching halt last November. She'd really worried when Brady had not replied to her e-mails for over 3 weeks, and then she'd become frantic when her last letter returned unopened. She'd been about ready to just pack her bags, head straight his house, and demand an answer from him when she'd received a very cold, very nasty e-mail from him. She'd never forget what he'd said:

"I know I haven't gotten back to you. Sorry about that. I've been doing some thinking. I don't want to hear from you again. Don’t love you, and I think I was too young at the time I told you that to know what the hell I was feeling. Probably hormones--you are beautiful, you know. I'm sure I was more in love with the idea of dating someone than I was with you. We don't have anything in common anyway. I don't want a relationship with you. Don't try to contact me. I won't take any phone messages from you, I will return any mail you send to me, and I have already blocked your address from my e-mail account. I mean every word I say. Have a good life. --Brady"

Absolutely devastated, she'd cried for days after his e-mail. She grieved for him as if he had passed away. It was so cold, so unlike the Brady she thought she knew and loved. Love. That was the problem. All of the harsh words in the world couldn't turn off her feelings, although sometimes she thought that hate won out over any feelings of love that she held for him. He had done a number on her, and even now, 7, almost 8 months later, her heart still felt raw from the pain and anger. She once again stared out the window. Above all else, she mused, at least Brady Black was not the reason she was returning to Salem. And, she'd make damn sure he never thought that he was.

Chapter 7

Shawn. Think about Shawn. His kind, loving eyes. How they sparkled when they looked at her. How he'd get all flustered when she said something he did was sweet. His wonderful smile that just made her heart sing with joy. Belle sat in the now-familiar closet, her slender arms curled tightly around her legs. She rocked back and forth, trying to comfort herself by desperately trying to think of the positive things in her life. Anything to get her mind off of--HIM. She shuddered, trying to forget how he'd practically thrown her back down the basement stairs after he'd caught her on the phone. The rage in his remorseless eyes was so palpable, so deep and terrifying, and so cold. His thick, meaty hands clamped on her now-bruised arms. He had dragged her back to the chair in that dark, awful room in the basement. The shadows created by the dim light from the single bare bulb in the ceiling only made him seem bigger, his movements more sudden and violent. He'd advanced on her, his thin lips curled in a sadistic leer that made the blood run ice cold in her veins...NO, Belle! She shouted to herself. You won't think about HIM. Think of Shawn. Your best friend. Think of your family...Brady. Oh, God. Brady. She was surprised to find tears dripping down her cheeks. She didn't think she had any left. She sniffed and looked up at the ceiling of the closet. Not that she could see anything. She cringed as she heard those same heavy footsteps coming down the hallway. They rapidly approached the closet, and the door flew open and banged against the wall. Belle squinted up into the light. The man reached down and grabbed her already bruised arm.

"Ok, little beauty," he said coldly. "It's show time. You're my ticket to better things, and I'm cashing you in." He smiled at her, and ran a large hand through her hair. She whimpered and cringed away from his touch. His smile instantly vanished, and his eyes narrowed dangerously.

"I would think you learned your lesson last time, little beauty. You DON'T make me mad, isn't that right?"

Belle nodded, too afraid to speak.

He smiled wolfishly at her. "Ah, that's more like it. You're mine, little beauty. Always mine. Don't forget that. Ever." He stroked her cheek, and it took all of Belle's willpower to not flinch away from his greasy touch. She refused to look at him, though. She closed her eyes, and told herself for the millionth time that awful night to focus on Shawn.

He yanked her to her feet and hauled her out into the hallway. Belle's eyes flew open as she felt herself go airborne for a split second. The whole night had seemed so unreal, so out of focus, and she had to stop hysterical giggles from erupting as she noticed he'd changed into clean clothes. No more dirty white tank covered in her brother's blood.

Belle struggled to keep up with his frantic pace as he raced up the stairs and into the filthy kitchen, his iron grip on her arm tightening as they rounded the corner into the living room. Suddenly, he threw her onto an old lumpy couch. She couldn't make out much of the living room, because no lights were turned on, but it was very small, and every bit as trashed as the kitchen. She landed on some greasy bits of paper, and somewhere in her subconscious she noticed how the scratchy upholstery on the couch rubbed against the bare skin on her legs. He leaned over her and breathed into her face, and she had to steel herself against his stale breath.

"Now, little beauty," he sneered. "You will do EXACTLY as I say. Remember that knife I plunged into your crippled boyfriend?"

Belle nodded, her eyes wide with terror.

"Well, I may just have to use that on you if you don't cooperate. Got it?" His eyes once again took on that wild, excited shine, and Belle's heart pounded with fear. She turned her head away from him so that she faced the back of the couch.

"I will kill you," he whispered into her ear. "I will kill you if you try anything. Anything at all." Suddenly, he yanked her head by her hair and forced her to face him. "Don't make me mad!!!!" He screamed into her face, and grabbed her with one arm around her neck, forcing her to walk in front of him to the front door.

Shawn badly wanted to stretch out his long legs. He'd been curled on the floor in the back of his dad's car for a few hours, and they felt cramped and stiff. After they'd left the house, his dad had gone by the hospital to pick up John. Shawn felt terrible for him--Brady's surgery had been taking much longer than expected, and John was absolutely torn about leaving the hospital. Bo had assured him that if he needed to stay, that Belle would be very well taken care of--he'd see to it himself. John had said, no, that Brady was not expected to even regain consciousness until late tomorrow, and Marlena and Hope were going to wait at the hospital in case something were to happen. John wanted to be there when they got Belle away from that monster--she'd need her father. So, they'd driven for quite a while, and finally stopped. From the bits of conversation Shawn heard, they parked outside a small ranch house. The police had the place completely surrounded, men in position, hiding in the bushes that surrounded the house and in unmarked cars placed in various strategic positions on the street. He could hear the buzz of conversation from his dad's police radio, and it scared him. Apparently, no one could get the man to answer his door or his phone. The entire house was dark, and his car, a rusted black'78 Ford pickup truck, sat in the driveway, indicating that he was actually home. Shawn's heart hadn't stopped pounding since he'd found out his Belle was in trouble. This endless waiting was killing him--all he could envision was her terror-filled blue eyes. How could anyone do such a terrible thing to someone with Belle's sweet spirit, he wondered. She had to be ok. She had to. He wished for the thousandth time that he had not left her and Brady alone. Damn! If only....

Suddenly, Bo grabbed the mic to the police radio in his car.
"Damn, son of a bitch!" He swore.

"Bo, we have to get her out of there, NOW!" John cried, his voice frantic and panicked.

"Ok. I'm on my way. John, listen to me." Bo's voice was even, yet commanding. "I know this is your daughter, but you have to let the hostage negotiator do her job, ok? Any sudden wrong moves on our part could mean serious danger for Belle. All right?"

Shawn guessed that John nodded his head, and the two men left the car. Shawn took the opportunity to stretch out his legs. Damn, they were sore! He kneaded his cramped muscles, and slowly kneeled so that he could see out the window. To his horror, a tall, large man with a skinny long dark ponytail stood on the front porch, his arm clamped around Belle's neck, and pressed a large hunting knife into Belle's throat. He didn't know which image disturbed him more: seeing Belle with that man's arm wrapped around her throat, or the glassy look of defeat in her eyes. He had to do something. Now. He knew he couldn't get close to her, but he had to get out of the car. He couldn't just sit still and let this maniac hurt Belle. He very slowly opened the car door and quietly slipped out onto the street. He closed the door so that it almost shut, knowing that he couldn't make a sound. He crawled up to the front of the car, and noticed he was right at the end of the driveway. He saw the old pick-up truck in the driveway, and he decided to crawl underneath his dad's car where he wouldn't be seen.

Susan, the hostage negotiator was calmly talking to the man. A petite 40-ish brown haired woman with an iron will, she stood in the middle of the front yard, as close as the man would allow her. "Ok, Mike," she said calmly, eying the firm grip he had on Belle. "I'm here to help you. Now, you've told me your name. That's good. Now, can you tell us what you need for us to do so that you can let Belle go?"

Mike stared at her, a small glimmer of reason in his eyes. "Let her go?" He mumbled. He paused. "Yeah. I need you to call off all of these damn cops. You hear me? Get them outta here! I'll kill her!!!" He tightened his grip on Belle, and she quietly whimpered.

"Ok, Mike," Susan said calmly. "We'll see what we can do."

John stood out of Belle's line of sight, his face white and pinched with worry. He'd never felt so helpless in his life. He was her father, damn it! He had always told her he'd be there for her, to protect her, and he couldn't do a damn thing. He clenched his fists, wanting to tear that bastard to shreds for putting his baby through such terror. Hang in there, sweetheart, he thought. We'll get you out of there just as soon as we can. He tiredly ran a strong hand through his dark hair and watched as the hostage negotiator calmly talked with the monster that held his daughter captive.

The minutes ticked by in the tensely charged atmosphere. Susan finally got Mike to accept that the police weren't going to go away, and now he seemed to be focusing on his own escape. Shawn guessed it had been close to an hour he'd been hiding under the car. The whole scene was like something out of a nightmare, he thought. The man, Mike, he heard them call him, had yet to let go of Belle. He'd been pacing the entire length of the front porch, dragging Belle back and forth with him. She had stopped whimpering, stopped giving any sign that she was even aware of what was going on around her. Shawn shifted, trying in vain to get more comfortable in the cramped space under his dad's car.

"To hell with all of you!" Mike suddenly shrieked. "I don't give a rat's ass about your ideas, Susan." The rage glittered fiercely in his steely gray eyes. "Listen to me," he hissed. "I'm leaving. Now. I'm taking this little beauty with me. No one, and I mean NO ONE is going to stop me. Any move towards her or me, and I slit her throat."

"Mike," Susan said gently. "Don't do this. This is going to be a mistake. We can work this out, but we have to do it together."
He laughed softly, the insanity ringing in his voice. "Don't give me that shit," he said, still laughing. "Do you think I'm stupid? DO YOU?"

That was it! Shawn quietly slid out from underneath his dad's car, praying that everyone would be so focused on the drama going on on the front porch that no one would notice what he was doing. He quickly crawled over to the pick-up truck, trying not to let his panic overcome his ability to think clearly. He reached into his pants pocket and pulled out his pocketknife. He flipped open his knife and effortlessly sliced the back two tires of the truck. He slid around the passenger side of the truck, praying that he would have a few minutes longer of anonymity to accomplish his task. He reached over to the passenger side front tire and slit the rubber, jabbing it much harder than necessary. But, he figured, it was the next best thing to taking his knife to the man that had hurt his Belle. He debated whether or not to risk trying to get around to the driver's side front tire. Too risky, Shawn, he thought. They could easily see you, and then it would be all over. He slipped back to his dad's car, and crouched down to wait, heart pounding, by the trunk.

"Out of my way!!!" Mike screamed, and picked up Belle. He threw her effortlessly over his broad but well padded shoulder and headed for his truck.

John, not even thinking, let his paternal instincts take over, and started to run after his daughter, but Bo grabbed onto his arm and held him back. John turned on his friend, his eyes dark with fury. "What the hell?" He demanded, trying to yank his arm out of Bo's strong grasp. "That's MY daughter that he has. I'm not letting him take her anywhere!"

"Listen to me, damn it!" Bo hissed. "He has a knife. Lord knows, he may even have a gun. He's hinted around that he might. I know it seems like you should run after her, but we can't risk him hurting her. He will, John. You know he will. That bastard is sick enough to do just what he's threatened."

John nodded, his strong shoulders slumping in defeat. Bo clapped him on the back, trying to reassure him where no reassurance could be found.

Mike threw Belle into his car and jumped into the driver's side. "Don't even try to follow us," he warned loudly. "I see any headlights behind me, and I'll start throwing pieces of this little beauty out the window." He laughed shrilly at his last statement, and slammed the door shut.

Belle stared out the window in front of her, dimly aware of her surroundings. She was in a car, she thought. How strange. Why was she in a car? She looked over to see her captor turning the key in the ignition. She watched, disinterested, as he put the truck in reverse and began backing out of the driveway.
"Just you and me, little beauty," he sang gleefully. "We're getting outta here. You're mine, and I'm going to make sure it stays that way!" He finished backing the truck out of the driveway and put it into drive. "Get ready to fly, little beauty," he whispered, and smiled at her, his gray eyes full of a mixture of anger, lust, and excitement. They began to accelerate down the street.

Suddenly, the truck lurched sideways, and Mike had to slam on the brakes. It was enough to shake Belle out of her stupor.
"Damn it!" He shouted. "What the hell?" He looked around the truck, trying to figure out what had just happened.
She looked at him, and realized that for the first time his attention was not solely focused on her. She very slowly slid towards the passenger side door and grabbed the handle. NOW! She thought to herself, and cranked the handle with all of her might. She threw the door open, jumped out of the truck and ran, thinking only that she had to get away from HIM. Her life depended on it.

"Get back here, little beauty!!!" The man screamed as he took off after her. "You don't want to make me mad!!!"
Belle didn't even bother to look behind her. Her heart pounding in her ears, she concentrated on keeping her feet pounding the pavement. As his gasping breath closed in on her, she summoned up strength she didn't know she had and picked up speed.

"Stop! Hold it! Let her go!" A tall skinny uniformed officer pointed a gun towards Mike. Three police officers immediately ran to him, and they tackled him down to the ground as he flailed and tried to get away. They wrestled his thick arms behind his back and cuffed him. Two of them held him down as the third officer frisked him for any hidden weapons he might have.

"Belle! Isabella!" John ran to meet her on the street. His feet couldn't get him to his daughter fast enough. He didn't even want to think about why her shirt was ripped and hanging in pieces, barely covering her.

Belle's eyes widened. "Daddy!!" She screamed, tears racing down her cheeks. She'd never seen such a welcome sight in her whole life. John closed the gap between him and his daughter. He reached down and pulled her into an enormous hug, his deep blue eyes filled with love and relief for his youngest. Belle shivered, and he tightened his strong arms around her. "Shh! It's ok, Izzy, it's ok. Daddy's here. You're safe now."

John kept murmuring comforting words to his daughter as they walked, arm in arm towards the waiting police cars. Someone had a blanket ready for Belle, and she soon found herself in the back of Bo Brady's car, her father with his arm still around her, softly stroking her hair.

Bo shook his head as he watched an officer read Mike his rights and help him into a waiting squad car, ducking his head with his hand as Mike folded his large frame into the backseat.
"How did that happen?" Bo wondered out loud. "Three flat tires? How did he manage to have THREE flat tires at once"

Shawn stood up from behind his dad's car, and smiled at his dad. "He had a little help from me!"

Bo could only stare at his oldest son. "Shawn? SHAWN DOUGLAS BRADY!!!!! What the hell are you doing here? How did you get here?"

Shawn shrugged. "I snuck in the back of your car and came along." He gazed earnestly at his father, who was really gearing up to let him have it. "Dad, I left her alone on the pier with Brady. I HAD to help her."

Bo, just thankful that Shawn was ok, gruffly slung one arm around his son's shoulders and hugged him. "Ok, son. We will discuss this later. You could have been hurt. You could have been killed. Thank God nothing happened to you." He grinned at his son, pride gleaming in his eyes. "That was some quick thinking, son. I think you may have saved Belle's life. You did your old man proud, even if I'm going to have to ground you until you're 30 for this stunt."

Shawn smiled back at his father and opened the front door of the car. He didn't care if he was grounded until JT graduated from college. Just as long as Belle was ok. That was ALL that mattered. He turned around to see her. Her hair was a tangled mess, sweated up and matted to the side of her head. Her blue eyes were red from crying, and her face a pale ghost of its normal lively self. He didn't care. He'd never seen anything so beautiful in his entire life. He leaned over the back seat and reached for her.

"NO!" Belle screamed, and burrowed into John's arms. "Get away from me!!!" Her eyes were full of pain and fear, and it broke Shawn's heart.

John smiled gently at Belle and patted her arm. He looked at Shawn and gave him a fatherly smile.

"Shawn, she's just in shock. She's been through an awful lot, and I think she's not even sure where she is right now."

Shawn nodded, uncertain. His perfect girl had to be all right. He didn't know what he would do without her. He turned back around in his seat and fastened his seat belt, ready to go home.

Chapter 8

His steel-gray beady eyes shone as he reached for her. "Now, now, little beauty. You're mine. All mine." He laughed softly, his whispered chuckle full of malice. "I'm going to make sure that you NEVER forget that!" He grabbed her by the arm and pulled her close to him. She frantically tried to turn her head away from him, but his hand snaked up and squeezed her chin. His vice-like grip forced her to face him, and she closed her eyes, wanting to shut out forever the desire she saw in his angry blotted face.

"No," she said, her voice trembling. "Please. No. NO NO NO NO NO!!"

"Belle? Belle!"

Belle groggily opened her eyes, and saw the welcome image of her mother's blurry concerned and loving face. Marlena smiled softly at her daughter and brushed her tangled blonde hair away from her forehead.

"Mom?" Belle whispered, blinking as she tried to get Marlena's face to come into focus. "Mom? I had the worst dream. This awful man had me in his house, and he wouldn't let me go. I've never had such a bad nightmare." Belle rubbed her eyes, and gradually her vision cleared. Why did she feel so fuzzy, so out of it? She just couldn't wake up.

Marlena had to look away at Belle's words. It had been a long, horrible night for them all. John brought home a completely traumatized and catatonic Belle around 2 A.M. He briefly told his wife about what they knew for certain that Belle had gone through, and what he guessed had happened. Marlena had never seen John so close to the edge in all of their years together. He was frantic, pissed, furious, and scared beyond belief for both of his children. She had tried to get him to stay home, get some rest, so that he could at least get some rational perspective, but he insisted that he needed to be at the hospital for Brady. So, Marlena had led Belle, torn clothes and all, upstairs to her room. She changed her into her pajamas, gave her a sedative, and sat with her daughter, holding her hand, as she used to do when Belle was small until she fell asleep. John called around dawn to let her know that Brady had made it through the surgery, and that Craig Wesley was going to meet with him shortly to discuss in more detail the outcome of the surgery and what it meant for Brady.

Belle's quiet sobs shook her out of her thoughts. She was sitting up, one strap of her lavender tank pajama top hanging off of her shoulder, and her narrow shoulders shook as she cried. Marlena sat down on the bed next to her, and put her arms around Belle. Belle started, and pushed Marlena away. "Don't touch me!" She cried, her fearful wide blue eyes focused on some remote, far away point. Whatever Belle saw, it was not her bedroom, and it was not her mother.

Marlena slowly withdrew her arms from around her daughter, not wanting to frighten her further. Oh, Belle, she thought, pain squeezing her heart, what did he do to you? "Shh! Sweet Girl, it's OK. It's Mom. Mom's here. It's OK. You're safe now. You're all right. Everything's going to be OK."

She gently crooned the soothing words over and over to her daughter until finally Belle looked at her with recognition. Fresh tears filled Belle's anguished eyes, and she could only helplessly look at her mother, fat tears spilling over onto her grimy tear stained cheeks. New bruises were beginning to form on her cheeks and jaw, showing dark blue shadows underneath Belle's delicate fair skin. Marlena very slowly reached up to caress Belle's jaw, and Belle briefly flinched away before allowing her mother to stroke her cheek.
"It wasn't a dream, was it, Mom?" Belle asked softly, sniffing between sobs. "Oh, God! It wasn't a dream. It was real. I wasn't dreaming."

Marlena shook her head, fighting back the tears threatening to spill out of her warm brown eyes. "No, honey. It happened. But you're home, and you're safe with Daddy and I." She reached out to Belle once again, and this time Belle collapsed into her Mother's protective arms and just sobbed. Marlena held her, stroking her hair, shedding some tears of her own. "Shh. Belle, it's OK. It's OK."

Belle jerked away from her and shook her head. She hugged her knees to her chest tightly, rocking back and forth in pain. "It's NOT OK!" She sobbed. "Don't you see? He k-killed Brady. I saw him kill my brother. Brady was so scared, and he was hurt, and I couldn't help him. He tried to save me, Mom, and now he's dead. He's my brother. Mom! I--"

Marlena gently took a hold of Belle's arm. "Belle! Listen to me. I need you to listen to me!!" Belle sniffed in surprise, shook her head and blinked at her mother. A few remaining tears streaked down her cheeks.

"Brady is not dead, honey. He's very seriously injured, and he's been in surgery all night. Daddy called early this morning to tell us that he made it through the operation. That's good news. Brady is not dead. OK?" Marlena smiled and wiped away Belle's tears with her thumb.

Belle smiled for the first time, a slight sparkle softening her red-rimmed blue eyes. "He's alive!!!" She threw her arms around her mother. "Oh, Mom! I thought he was dead. There was so much blood. His eyes.... he was so scared. I've never seen him so scared." The light in her eyes immediately dimmed. Belle looked down at her lap and began playing with a corner of her comforter. "It was awful. All I could think was that I had to leave him there. All alone and bleeding and scared. I couldn't even call for help."
"Shh! I know, honey. Brady knows that you did all that you could. I'm sure he does." Marlena rubbed her back as she spoke.
"No--I didn't. You don't understand! He--"

Marlena wrapped her daughter into a big hug, and she just held her there, thankful beyond words that she still had this beautiful girl to love and hold. She held her at arm's length and smiled through her own tears at Belle. Belle's forlorn gaze was almost too much to bear, she thought.
"You listen to me. This is NOT your fault. None of this is your fault. Brady would not want you to think that either, OK? Daddy found him in time, and he's getting the best possible medical care. We have to leave the rest up to the doctors, your brother and God, OK?"

Belle nodded, and for a while she just sat there, with her mother's arms around her, feeling safe for the first time since her hostage ordeal. "Mom. I think I want to take a shower," she said quietly, rubbing her eyes with the back of her hand.

Marlena smiled lovingly at her youngest daughter. "All right, Sweetie. I'll be downstairs if you need anything." She planted a kiss on the top of Belle's head and stood up. "I love you, Sweet Girl. Daddy loves you, and Brady loves you."

Belle didn't return her mother's gaze, and only nodded in reply. She glanced at the window after her mother left the room. The sun shone brightly through the cracks in her mini-blind, dancing on the cheerful pale yellow walls and cream-colored carpet of her room. But the day felt dark, ugly, and hopeless to Belle. She threw the covers off her bed, grabbed some clothes out of her dresser, not even caring if her clothes matched, and shuffled into her bathroom.

John had completely lost track of time. He'd been sitting by Brady's bedside ever since he'd come out of surgery. His eyes burned from lack of sleep, but he knew he'd never rest until his son was awake and able to talk to him. Brady hardly resembled the handsome young man that had stormed out of the penthouse the day before. His unnaturally pale skin created a contrasting background for the many tubes and wires that were hooked into his muscular body. Monitors of all kinds softly beeped and hummed as they constantly measured Brady's vitals. All of his more superficial wounds had been stitched, dressed and covered in bandages, and most of his chest and upper arms lay hidden beneath a white carpet of gauze. Brady was damn lucky to be alive, Craig had informed John. He had sustained serious internal damage in his entire abdominal cavity, and the surgical team had really struggled to stop the internal bleeding from his injuries. It was still touch and go, but at least Brady had survived the surgery, and that was a very positive sign. John sighed and rubbed his whisker stubbled chin. Come on, son, he thought. Just open your eyes. Just look at me, let me know that you're going to be all right. He propped his elbows on the bed beside his unconscious son and gazed at Brady. You've spent way too much time in the hospital this year, kid, he thought sadly. Somehow, somewhere, someone has got to cut you a break. They have to. John closed his eyes, only for a moment, and was soon fast asleep.

"Dad?" Brady's hoarse whisper startled him awake. John's eyes flew open, and a huge grin spread across his handsome chiseled face.

He leaned closer to his son and gently touched his forehead. "Hey, kid. How are you?"

Brady looked at his dad, his deep blue eyes groggy with confusion. "Where am I?"

"You're in the hospital, son. You've had some surgery, but you're going to be all right."

Brady wrinkled up his nose. "I should have recognized the smell," he said sleepily. "Why did I have an operation?"

John paused, not sure of what to say next. He didn't want to upset his son, and possibly cause him more harm, but he also didn't want to lie to him.

"Do you remember anything?" John asked, rather than answering Brady's question.

Brady closed his eyes, and John thought he had fallen asleep. "No," he said after a while. "Wait. I remember I was at the pier. Belle..." His eyes shot open, and he grabbed for John's hand.

John gently restrained Brady's arm and said, "Belle is fine. She's home with her mother right now. You just rest, OK? You've been through a lot, and you need to take it easy."

Brady shook his head. "She's in trouble, don't know why... she is.... have to find her, Dad." His speech became slurred as exhaustion started to overcome him.

John patted Brady on the arm. "Easy, son. She's all right. She's in bed at home. I promise, son. I'll have her call you soon, OK? Now, I'm going to go get the nurse and let her know that you're awake. Just rest."

John stood up, and before he could get to the door, Brady had already fallen asleep.

Belle stared at her reflection in her full-length bathroom mirror. As the steam from the hot shower swirled around her, she gazed at her bare skin. Instead of seeing a happy, well-adjusted 17-year-old teenager, a stranger she couldn't bear to look at stared sadly at her. Numerous dark bruises were scattered up and down her torso, arms, and legs. As the steam from the shower collected in the small bathroom, it began to fog her mirror. Soon, the bruises just looked dirty. That's what she was. Dirty. She began rubbing her arms, trying to get the dirt off, but it wouldn't come off. She couldn't get rid of the horrible feel of his fingers crawling on her skin. Tears running down her cheeks, she reached into the shower and turned the water as hot as she could get it. She stepped over the side of the tub and immersed herself in the steaming water. Hot water rolled over her body, and she allowed her mind to go blank, the hypnotic drumming of the water on her back a welcome sensation. She grabbed her loofah sponge and squirted a palm-sized dab of vanilla shower gel onto it. She began to frantically scrub her skin until it turned bright red. Have to get it clean, she thought wildly. It won't get clean. She didn't even notice when her skin became tender and sore. It wasn't working. The dirty feel of his hands would never go away. She dropped the loofah, not noticing the clatter of the wooden handle as it hit the side of the tub and bounced onto the bathroom floor. Belle slowly sank onto her knees in the tub and covered her head with her arms.
"No!!!!" She cried. "It won't go away!" She curled under the pounding stream of water, unaware of its tiny sharp bites on her sensitive red skin.

That was how Marlena found her. She had begun to worry about Belle when after nearly an hour the water still ran in the shower, and had come upstairs to check on her. Oh, God, she thought, closing her eyes briefly at the sight of the bruises on Belle's slender body. My poor baby. I shouldn't have left her alone. Marlena quickly turned off the water, her heart aching at the sight of Belle's raw skin. She found a fluffy light blue over-sized bath towel and held it out to her daughter.

"Come on, baby. It's time to get out of the shower." She kept her voice calm and soothing as Belle numbly climbed out of the tub and allowed her mother to wrap the towel around her shivering body. Belle refused to look at her mother, or even say a word. She stood woodenly as Marlena applied baby powder to her sore skin, and then dressed her like a child in the shorts and t-shirt Belle had dumped on the bathroom floor. Her mother brushed her wet golden hair and gently led her into her bedroom.

"How about if I bring you an aspirin and some tea?" Marlena asked. Belle sat on the side of her bed and didn't reply. "Belle?" Marlena asked, her concern mounting by the second.

Finally, Belle nodded, just wanting her mother to go away. She looked in disgust at her reddened skin, a sign of how dirty she felt. As she glanced around her room, a framed picture on her nightstand caught her eye. It had been a beautiful, warm and sunny summer day. She and Shawn stood on the deck of his parents' boat, the "Fancy Face II." She had jumped onto his back, leapfrog style, and both were laughing wildly into the camera. Belle felt a ghost of a smile cross her lips as she stared at his twinkling chocolate eyes and unruly brown hair. Shawn. He'd never want anything to do with her now. She picked up the picture, one of her most treasured possessions, and threw it as hard as she could against the wall, watching numbly as the glass shattered. Shattered, into a thousand pieces. Just like her life.

Chapter 9

"It's gotta be under here somewhere," Belle muttered, shoving aside books and a few unlucky stuffed bears that had been relegated to the dark recesses under her bed. "Ha!! I knew it." Stretching as hard as she could, her fingertips grabbed onto the bill of a black baseball cap. Actually, it was Brady's favorite baseball cap, and if he knew it had fallen under her bed he would NOT be pleased with her. She smiled at the thought of her brother and pulled the hat out from under her bed. She shook the dust off of the hat as she stood up and pulled it onto her head, shoving her uncombed blonde hair up into it. It had been 3 weeks since that awful night, 3 weeks of frightening anxiety and vivid nightmares. She had steadfastly refused to leave the house, and her parents had thankfully not forced her to return to school. She just didn't think she could face anyone, least of all Shawn. Some days she didn't even want to get out of bed or even leave the safety of her room. She tugged the tail of her baggy T-shirt over her hips and looked around the room for her house keys. There! They lay in a clump of brightly colored linked key chains on her desktop. Belle frowned as she noticed the blinking light on her answering machine. She crawled up onto her bed, reached over to her desk, and pressed the "message" button.

"Belle. Hey, Perfect Girl. It's Shawn. Look, we really missed you at school this week. You know, the last week of school and all. Things just aren't the same without you around. Um...I guess what I'm trying to say is I miss you. Call me when you get this message, OK? Uh...yeah. Talk to you later. Bye."

Belle hit the delete button, as she had to every message from her friends since that awful night, and paused before grabbing her keys. She refused to allow her heart to melt at the seductive warmth in his deep voice. No, Shawn, she thought. You have no idea how very wrong you are. I'm not perfect, and I'm not the same anymore. I can't talk to you. I can't see you. I can't. She stuffed the wad of keys into her pocket. Or, rather, Brady's pocket. She had taken to wearing her brother's clothes because she just felt better knowing that she had a little bit of him close to her. She didn't realize that it was her way of hiding how dirty and ashamed she felt under all of the layers of his clothes. Well, girl, she thought ruefully. It's time to face that world. She had a special trip she had to make, and the thought of leaving the house gave her butterflies in her stomach. Just do it, Belle! She told herself. Belle closed her bedroom door, hurried down the stairs, and headed out the door to the elevator before she could change her mind.

Brady lay propped against several pillows in his hospital bed. He stared briefly at the tiles in the ceiling of his private hospital room. He knew exactly how many there were--458 1?2, if you counted the little one in the corner by the bathroom door. Funny how this room had almost 100 less than his old room the last time he was stuck in this stinking place, he thought morbidly. Suck it up, Brady, he told himself. After all, how could he have forgotten how great it was to have endless hours to watch crappy reruns on cable? Yeah. He was going to live, all right. Dr. Wesley had told him numerous times just how damn lucky he was. He was finally beginning to experience some relief from the intense throbbing pain he'd been enduring since the stabbing, and Craig had assured him that his stitches were healing very well and would be coming out soon. Frankly, he'd never known that so many stitches could exist on one person. He closed his eyes, trying to block out the memories of that horrible night, memories that were so vivid, so real that sometimes it was all he could think about. The mad glee in that man's face still made him shiver, still haunted his waking hours and his dreams. He could still see the silver gleam of the knife glinting in the moonlight as the man briefly let it hover over Brady before he plunged it into him. And, worst of all, he could see the terror in Belle's eyes as she saw her older brother being stabbed. The only comfort he held onto was that Belle had gotten away safely from that horrible monster, but he still couldn't help but feel responsible. If only he hadn't let his temper get the best of him...

The soft creaking of the door to his room interrupted his dark thoughts. Carl, Brady's physical therapist, popped his head around the doorframe, his gentle smile hiding his concern for Brady. He and Brady had developed a very close, unique trusting bond as therapist and patient over the months that they had worked together. In Brady's eyes, Carl was one of the few people that truly understood the many challenges he faced, and what it really meant to deal with a disability at such a relatively young age. Carl also knew that Brady was different from most people. Yeah, he sometimes had a foul mouth and a rotten attitude. In fact, when he had first started working with Brady, he had been one of THOSE patients. He had been the one Carl dreaded seeing every day at work, the one he'd grumble about to his wife at the dinner table. But Brady had bit by bit started to trust him, and began to let Carl help him. Not that anything by any stretch of the imagination was smooth sailing where Brady Black was concerned, but that kid had such a quick wit and obvious intelligence that it became very apparent there was much more to him than he let on. Carl also suspected that behind Brady's smart mouth lay a world of hurt that went far beyond his frustration with his spinal cord injury. He just needed the right person to bring him out of his depression and anger. And, unfortunately, the recent traumatic turn of events had not helped Brady's state of mind at all.

"Hey, man." Carl said, pushing a wheelchair into Brady's room. He noticed that the dresser was full of fresh flowers, and that many colorful get well cards lined the wall in two neat rows next to Brady's bed. "Ready to get that lazy butt out of bed and do a little bit of work?" He asked, referring to the fact that Brady had hardly been out of bed in the three weeks since the stabbing.

Brady didn't answer his therapist, and instead turned up the volume on the TV. "I'm not in the mood." He growled, and he began flicking through the channels on the television, staring intently at the screen.

Carl sighed, and rolled his eyes in frustration. They had gone through so many scenes just like this right after Brady had been shot, and he knew he had to put an end to this right now. He calmly walked over to the TV and unplugged it.

"What the hell?" Brady demanded, wincing as he sat straight up in bed. "I said I don't want to go to therapy, damn it. Go find someone else to torture."

Carl wordlessly parked the wheelchair next to Brady's bed and set the brakes. "It's your choice, kid," he said quietly, his deep brown eyes caring but firm. "You can do this willingly, like the determined person I know you to be, or you can revert to pouting and I'll just carry you into the damn chair if I have to. What's your pleasure?"

Brady collapsed back against his pillows, his broad chest heaving with anger, his intense blue eyes glaring daggers at the huge gentle man towering over his bed. He knew from personal experience that Carl was a man of his word, and would not hesitate to just dump him into the wheelchair. Frustration simmered in the pit of his stomach, and Brady clenched his fists at how helpless and powerless this made him feel.

Carl's eyes softened as he correctly read Brady's angry scowl. "Look, Brady. You know this wheelchair is not a permanent thing. We have to proceed from here very carefully because of your disability. Remember, you're just beginning to recover from pretty substantial surgery, and if you didn't need to rest your upper body as much as possible, we'd at least have you standing on crutches. But, for now, we'll just put that on hold. Now, let's get you out of bed and into that chair. We have a few tests to run this afternoon, and that should be plenty of activity for you for today."

"Whatever," Brady muttered, and grudgingly allowed Carl to help him into the chair.

Deja vu, Brady thought sardonically an hour later as he once again lay in his bed and stared aimlessly at the 458 1?2 tiles on the ceiling of his room. They'd done tests on his back and legs, and none of it looked good. The unwelcome weight of discouragement hovered very close because he'd lost quite a bit of strength in his right leg, most likely from swelling around his spinal cord from the numerous nasty falls he took that night on the pier. He hadn't felt this bleak since the shooting, he thought. The dark heavy cloud of depression seemed to cover him, smothering all that might have been good about his life. Ah, things that were good in life. Like the most amazing pair of cinnamon brown eyes that could read right into his soul. Her smile, soft and sexy--just thinking of it made his heart pound. How her long brown hair would tickle her slender waist...get a grip, Black, he chastised himself. That chapter of your life is over forever. You made damn sure of that. Yeah. What a hell of a knight in shining armor you are.

Brady shook his head and reached for the remote, intending on checking out the latest sports news, when his door once again cracked open, and Belle quietly walked in. Or at least he thought it was Belle. The remote slipped through his long fingers and clattered noisily onto the tile floor, but Brady didn't notice. What he did notice was Belle's eyes, and how bleak, dull, flat and lifeless they seemed. He pushed himself up to a sitting position and took a second good look at his little sister. She wore his favorite black baseball cap, and he could barely see a few escaped strands of her blonde hair poking from underneath its cupped bill. She was practically swimming in one of his gray pocket T-shirts and knit shorts that he used to wear to run in. What the HELL was going on with Tink? She never left her room without make-up on, much less the house. Her pale face looked wan in the bright artificial light of his room, and he could see clearly the large dark circles that had formed underneath her eyes. He also knew how she lived to shop for all the latest styles, and he highly doubted wearing clothes 4 sizes too big was the latest fashion rage at Salem High.

"Tink?" He asked softly as she silently crossed the room to his bed, picked up the remote, and laid it on his bed tray. She offered him a shaky smile, and Brady didn't miss the dewy tears forming in her wide blue eyes. Belle stood stiffly by his bed and looked towards him, but not at him. Alarm bells sounded inside of Brady, and he patted the bed next to him. "Have a seat, sis." He suggested, and Belle shook her head.

"No, thanks." She said flatly. "I'm OK here."
"All right," Brady said slowly, wondering where her strange behavior was coming from.

Belle crossed her arms tightly over her chest and allowed her eyes to wander around her brother's hospital room. It was much the same scene they had all endured last fall, down to the flowers she had sent to him every day to cheer him up. This was harder than she thought it would be. She desperately wished she were back in the safety of her room where she didn't have to face anyone. What did Brady think of her now? Did he look at her differently after all that had happened, she wondered? Or did he still think of her as his baby sister whose biggest problem was trying to figure out what dress to wear to the Last Blast dance. Come on, Belle, she thought. This is Brady here. He loves you, remember? Say something, anything!!

"Brady, I--" She bit her lower lip, trying desperately not to cry. "I'm so glad you're OK!"
Brady gazed at her with such unconditional, d
eep love, and that was all it took. Belle burst into tears and leaned down to hug her brother. He gently patted her back as she sobbed.

"It's OK," he whispered, trying not to cry himself. "You have no idea how glad I am to see you." He smiled at Belle, his icy blue eyes warming affectionately as she sat down next to him on the bed. He gently wiped the tears from her cheeks and cocked an inquisitive eyebrow at her.

"So," He said casually. "Care to explain this latest fashion trend you've got going on?"

Belle dropped her gaze from his. She self-consciously tugged at the T-shirt she wore and sniffled. "No."

Brady was actually speechless for a moment. He closed his eyes, brows creased, trying to find some sort of rational explanation for his sister's actions. "OK. Let's examine the facts, shall we?" He questioned her, not failing to notice the slight trembling of her clasped fingers folded in her lap. "Since you're wearing MY clothes, which, by the way, are way too big for you, perhaps you could, you know, give me a hint?"

Belle jumped off of the bed and shoved the bed tray into the wall, sending the remote and a glass of water flying to the ground. She whirled on him and glared at him, her cheeks bright red with anger. "Do you have ANY idea what it took for me to come here to see you, how hard it was, and all you care about is that I'm wearing your clothes? You're not the only one who had a crappy night at the pier, you know." She angrily swiped a few escaped tears away and walked over to the narrow window, her back stiffly facing him.

Brady blinked at his sister's retreating back, and his thoughts whirled a thousand miles a minute. The hair pricked on the back of his neck in alarm, and his mouth began to feel dry and full of cotton. Obviously, he was missing out on something important. He felt as if he were in a raging river, desperately trying to grab onto that one log that was always just out of his reach.

"All right, Belle." Brady said softly. "I'm sorry. What do you mean 'I wasn't the only one who had a crappy night at the pier'?"

Belle stood silently in front of the window, staring at all of the cars littered about the parking lot 10 floors below, the warm afternoon sun sparkling off of their colored tops. Amazing, she thought, how the brightly colored quilt of cars down there seemed to mock her despair in their cheerful rainbow of color. She couldn't understand what Brady's problem was. Yes, he'd been in the hospital, and was badly hurt. But she never would have thought he would let anything stop him from knowing for himself if she was OK after what happened to her that night at the pier. He'd never called home, never asked their father about her as far as she knew, and that really hurt. He was the one person she wanted to pour her heart out to, the one person that had been through part of that awful night with her, and he didn't even seem to care.

"Are you that dense?" She demanded, turning around to face him, her eyes bright with tears. "Do I have to spell it out for you? And here I always thought you were such a smart guy. How would you feel if you were held hostage all night by some monster who you thought had just killed your brother in front of your eyes?" Belle stalked over to his bed, the anger she'd been holding towards him spilling over with her words. She yanked his cap off of her head and threw it down next to him on the bed, glaring at him as she ranted. "He shoved me into a closet and left me there for hours. For hours! I had no idea where I was, I thought you were dead, I didn't know if I was going to die, and all I had was time to think about every awful thing that could happen to me...and you!!! He was so awful, and terrible, with his hands on me, and his cold eyes and his stale breath, and he...he..." Belle covered her face with her hands and sank down onto the bed next to her brother.

Brady could only stare incredulously at his little sister. She pulled her knees up to her chest and buried her face into her arms. His heart shattered into a thousand pieces as he finally realized that Belle had not managed to get away from that bastard, but had gone through much much more than he had. He swallowed the lump in his throat and said hoarsely, "Oh, God, Belle. He held you hostage? Dad told me that you were safe, and I didn't know. Oh, my God. I didn't know. I swear I didn't know." He looked up at the ceiling, trying to blink back tears.

Belle looked up and stared at Brady in surprise. He hadn't known what had happened to her! The shock and horror on his face told her that he had had no idea what she had gone through, and his eyes deepened to azure blue with pain for her. She grabbed his hat, stuffed it back onto her head, and really studied her brother for the first time since she'd come into his room. His face was thinner, pale and drawn with pain and exhaustion. White gauze peeked out from beneath the short sleeves of his hospital gown, covering the stitched up slash wounds on his chest and shoulders. She also noticed that his crutches were nowhere to be found, and instead a wheelchair was parked next to his bed. The adrenaline began pumping through her body as she began to imagine what sort of reasons he would once again need a wheelchair. Oh, no, she thought. This was not good, not good at all.

"Brady," she began hesitantly, not knowing where to begin. He was extremely sensitive about his disability, even with her.

"Did he hurt you?" Brady asked, his deep voice simmering with barely concealed rage.
"Answer me, damn it!" He demanded, his eyes mirroring the fear that was beginning to overwhelm his sense of reason.

Belle jumped at his harsh tone of voice, and that was all the answer Brady needed. She didn't know how to answer him, because he obviously needed rest, not anxiety over her. "I think I shouldn't have come," she whispered, her blue eyes full of emotion.

Brady shook his head and stared at Belle's wounded eyes. He clenched his fist under the covers, trying to get a grip on the intense anger building inside. "He hurt you, didn't he?"

Oh, Tink, I'm sorry, he thought. Sorry for what hell you went through. Sorry. Sorry I couldn't do a damn thing to save you...

The depression that he had been trying to fight off enveloped him like wildfire. This was all because of him, he thought bleakly. If he had been like he was...before...that sick bastard wouldn't have gotten past putting a hand on Belle. Because he was crippled, he hadn't been able to save his baby sister. He'd been helpless, useless against that man. He'd put her through hell, and that bastard had taken away that spark, that spirit that made Belle so special, so unique. He ran his hand through his hair and steeled himself to do the right thing. He loved his sister, and he'd make sure she never was hurt again because of him. Ever.

"Belle," He said harshly, trying to mask the emotion in his voice. "I want you to listen to me. I'm trying to recover here, and your drama is not helping. Why don't you go home and cry to Marlena and leave me in peace. I don't need this right now."

Belle stared at him, her eyes wide with hurt. Brady was a lot of things, but he was never nasty to her. "Brady," she said softly, her voice trembling. "It's me. Belle. I'm here for you, don't you understand?"

Brady sighed in frustration and glared at Belle. "Listen to me," he snarled. "Did I ask you to be here for me? No!!! This isn't some episode of "Sweet Valley High" where all of the world's problems are solved in 30 minutes or less. You have to learn to grow up! Not everything is fair in this world, and it's about time you figured that one out. I don't want you here. I don't need you to hold my hand, and I don't want your pity. Go HOME. GO!!!!"

Any color left in Belle's face flooded into white, and she shakily stood up. She backed away from Brady's bed, her blue eyes brimming with disbelief and pain. Her hand flew to her mouth, and she turned and ran out of Brady's room, blinded by the tears flooding down her cheeks.

Brady watched Belle stumble out of his room, and he'd never felt so worthless in his life. How could you do that to the one person in this world that loves you for who you are, he asked himself harshly. And then he remembered her haunted eyes as she told him how she'd been held hostage that night, how that monster's hands had been on her.... I'm sorry I had to hurt you, Tink, he thought. Sorrier than you'll ever know or believe. But I'm poison to you. You did the right thing, Brady, he tried to convince himself. You have to protect her the only way that you can. Yeah, right! Another voice sneered. And that's why you'll never forget the betrayal in her eyes as she looked at you as long as you live. And that's why the tear that slipped down his cheek meant nothing to him at all.

Belle didn't remember how she got home. It was all in a fuzzy pain-filled haze. The next thing she knew, she stood in the elevator, sagging against the wall, riding it up to the penthouse. She barely noticed the tiny ding of the bell as the elevator passed each floor. Finally, she reached the top floor, and stepped out into the hallway in a daze, heading for the safe sanctity of home. All she wanted to do was crawl into bed and never come out again.

"Hey, Perfect Girl. Don't you think it's about time we talked?" Shawn sat on the floor outside the penthouse door, muscular legs crossed, his chestnut hair grazing his forehead in unruly waves. Belle stopped dead in her tracks and stared at him. Oh, no, she thought. I have to get out of this. I have to get him to leave me alone.

Chapter 10

Belle eyed Shawn warily, unconsciously tugging on the tail of her oversized gray T-shirt. It broke Shawn’s heart, to see her in the clothes that were so big they barely stayed on her slender frame, and to see how remote her expression was. Belle, HIS Belle was so full of spirit and fire, and the girl that stood before him with the hauntingly frail grip on life was only a shell, a carbon copy of her former self.

Ever since that horrible night that she had been abducted, Shawn had called her every day. He had sometimes left 2 or 3 messages every day for the first week until it had become increasingly obvious that Belle was not going to return his calls. He’d felt defeated, sad, and depressed. He wanted to help her, to show her that he still cared for her, but she apparently wouldn’t see or talk to him or any of her friends. He had a pretty good idea of what she had experienced, and didn’t blame her for being traumatized. Hell, HE’D been traumatized just seeing that man’s grip on Belle, with the long, razor sharp blade of that hunting knife pressed against the soft, creamy skin of her throat. It had taken every bit of will power he had (and some he didn’t know he had) to not run straight to the penthouse and see for himself that she was ok. His mother, he grudgingly admitted, was right. Belle needed space, and lots of it. She needed time to begin to sort out the myriad of emotions caused by the trauma of that terrible night. But, damn it, 3 weeks was long enough to go without any word from his Perfect Girl.

So, there he sat for the past hour, in front of the door to the Blacks’ home, waiting for someone to arrive. He didn’t care who it was, because there was no way he was going to leave. Admittedly, he HAD been a little nervous that John might be the first one home, because it might have been difficult to convince Belle’s protective father that he needed to see his daughter. Fortunately, Belle was the first one home, but Shawn was not prepared for the virtual stranger that stood shaking in front of him. She reminded him of a wounded, frightened doe, her big blue eyes searching for any means of escape, and he very slowly stood up, trying not to startle Belle.

“Hey,” he said softly, entreating her with warm liquid brown eyes and a crooked little half-smile. “It’s me, remember? You know, your old buddy Shawn.”

Belle barely heard his words through the pounding of her heart. She blinked at him, knowing on some level that Shawn would never hurt her. But then, she’d KNOWN that Brady wouldn’t hurt her, either, and look what had happened. She busied herself by searching through her wad of keys for her house key. Her hands wouldn’t stop trembling, and she lost her grip on the keys. She watched them tumble to the carpeted floor of the hallway as they landed with a dull thud. “Oh!” She said, and bent down to retrieve her keys.
Shawn bent down as well, and as he reached to grab the keys for her, his hand brushed lightly against her knuckles, sending a jolt down her spine. She jumped back and snatched her hand away.
“Don’t touch me!” She cried, and hugged herself tightly, trying to keep all of the pain and anger she felt at bay. She stared at the ground, afraid to meet Shawn’s worried gaze.
“Hey,” he said softly. He schooled his face into a neutral expression, wanting to hide from her how much this was tearing him apart. “Look at me, Belle.”
She slowly raised her head and looked at him with such utter despair that he had to literally chew on the inside of his mouth to keep from going to her and wrapping her in an embrace that would never let her go.

Shawn raised his hands, palms facing her, in front of him so that she could see them. “I’m only trying to pick up your keys for you, Belle. I won’t hurt you.” Shawn kept his voice low and even as he bent down to retrieve Belle’s keys. “Your hands are shaking. Why don’t you let me open the door for you?” he asked kindly as Belle stood silently next to the wall, her arms still tightly crossed. She nodded, and he walked over to the door and opened it. Belle darted inside the penthouse, and Shawn slowly followed her in the door.

She curled up on one of the couches, and reached up to fiddle with the bill of Brady’s baseball cap. Shawn stood uncertainly in the doorway, not sure whether or not he should actually go inside. He wasn’t completely sure Belle fully realized that it was him that stood there. “Belle?” he asked, and she turned slightly so that she could see him. He studied her face, and, to him, she looked beautiful. She wore no make-up, emphasizing her pale skin, her hair was shoved into the cap on her head, and he could only see a few tangled strands that had escaped its black confines. Her cheeks bore the telltale tracks of recent tears, and her eyes were red and puffy from crying. But she was his Belle, and she was beautiful.

“Belle, I’m going to come in and sit down, ok?” He asked, and after a slight pause, she nodded. She hugged her knees to her chest and watched him as he crossed the room and took a seat on the couch opposite hers. He sighed, trying to decide where to begin. “I wanted to talk,” he finally said, his chocolate eyes full of warmth and caring.

Belle sighed, wanting to believe he actually still cared for her. “I don’t want to talk,” she answered dully. “Please leave.”

Shawn knew she’d been through hell, but why did she have to be so damn stubborn? Woah, Shawn, he thought. Tread easily here. He counted to 10 before answering. “I will leave, but first I have a few things I want to say to you.”

Her eyes widened in surprise. She waited as Shawn propped his chin on his hands, and he smiled gently at her, making her heart pound. Stop it, Belle! She chided herself. You’re only asking to get hurt, feeling that way about him. He doesn’t know the truth, and, she thought, he never will. She dropped her gaze from his and stared intently at the beige carpet.

“I know you went through hell that night, Belle, and I won’t lie to you. I can’t totally understand all that you’re going through right now. But you’re my best friend, and I care about you. I want to help you. Help you through this.” He paused, seeing if she even heard what he was saying. He thought he saw a slight glint of hope in her eyes, so he continued. “But I can’t help you if you won’t even talk to me.”

Belle shook her head. “Please, Shawn,” she whispered, her voice raw with emotion. “Don’t ask me to do this. Not now. I--I can’t.”

Shawn looked at her thoughtfully. He had to get through to her. It broke his heart to know that she had been hurt so badly that she was terrified just to be in the same room with him, and he had to help her rebuild her trust. And that meant he had to put all of his feelings for her aside. Right now she needed him to be her friend, no strings attached. And that’s what he’d do for her. He would wait as long as it took to have his Perfect Girl back.

“I’m not asking you to do anything, Belle,” he answered carefully. “That is, I’m not asking you to do anything except maybe to stop hiding from the world a little.” He was pleased to see that she stopped staring at the floor and looked up at his words. “You’ve got so many people that love you and care about you. Your friends...Meems, Chloe, Phil, all of them are worried, and want to help. You have a wonderful family that loves you, and a big brother that would move mountains if he could to make your pain go away.”

At Shawn’s mention of Brady, a small tear slid down Belle’s cheek. “My big brother wants nothing to do with me,” she said heartbrokenly.

Ironically, even though Belle was obviously upset about Brady, Shawn wanted to jump up and down with joy because she was actually participating in a conversation with him.

“I’m sure that’s not true!” Shawn argued, and he clasped his hands under his chin as he spoke. “Brady may be a major pain in the ass, but he adores you, Belle.”

Belle shook her head, swiping yet another tear away in annoyance. Come on, Belle, she thought. You’ve cried way too many tears as it is. Enough is enough! Get a backbone and stop being such a baby. “No, he doesn’t want me anywhere near him. He told me so. He was so cold, so ruthless, and he meant every word he said.” She stared dully at Shawn, the sparkle in her eyes replaced by deep pain as she remembered how nasty Brady had been to her.

Shawn felt a surge of white-hot anger, and he ground his teeth furiously. Damn!! Yes Brady was his cousin, and was in the hospital. And, yes, Brady had had the kind of year that he wouldn’t wish on his worst enemy. But right now he wanted to kill him. Throttle him with his bare hands for hurting Belle. Hadn’t Belle been through enough without adding all of this to her already full plate? He didn’t know what exactly had been said between brother and sister, but he knew enough to see that Brady had hurt Belle deeply when she needed her brother’s unconditional love and support.

Shawn jumped up and began pacing back and forth in front of the French doors that led to the balcony. Belle couldn’t help but notice how his light blue T-shirt contrasted nicely against his dark hair, how it hugged his broad shoulders. She mentally shook herself, knowing that that part of her life would forever be over. Never again would he be hers, and she had to face that. Shawn angrily swiped his hand through his thick chestnut hair, unaware that he had just unleashed that unruly wave of hair into his eyes that Belle found so appealing.

“Belle, I don’t know what the hell Brady’s problem is. I don’t know why he can’t get out of this “poor me” state if that’s what it is long enough to see that he needs to be there for you. But you’ll get through this.” He stopped pacing and turned to study her. Did he actually see a slight spark of interest in her eyes? Encouraged, he sat down once again on the couch and smiled ruefully at her. “I’ll get you through this. And,” he muttered, rolling his eyes, “hopefully I won’t have to kill your brother in order to do it. But I want you to listen to me. He leaned forward so that he was closer to her. “I am NOT going anywhere, no matter what you say. I am not here to judge you, or to hurt you.”

He desperately wanted to take her small hands in his, to reassure her that he did mean every word he said. But, he knew that it was too soon for that. Instead, he offered her another dazzling smile. “I’m just here for you.” He said simply. “And I’m so sorry that you had to go through what you did.”

Belle felt as if she were in a cage, locked away from the world. Why couldn’t she just jump into his arms and let him know how very much his beautiful heartfelt words meant to her? Instead, all she could do was stare at him wordlessly as he poured his heart out to her. She just couldn’t make the words come. She couldn’t speak, and she could barely force herself to meet his sweet caring gaze. She nodded again and watched as he stood and walked over to her. He gently sat next to her on the couch, careful to move slowly enough so that he didn’t frighten her. He reached into his jeans pocket and removed a small package wrapped in a plain piece of lined notebook paper.

He smiled, slightly embarrassed at her questioning glance as she took the little package from him. “I’m a guy. We’re not supposed to know how to wrap presents. Anyway, I kinda thought it would be something you’d like.” He reached out and softly touched her shoulder, and Belle flinched reflexively. Shawn quickly looked away, wanting to hide from her how much her gesture hurt. He had to remind himself that she was in pain right now, and that she wasn’t herself. He smiled at her and stood, stuffing his hands into his pockets. “Well, I guess I’d better go. Make sure you open that, ok?”

Belle watched as he quickly walked to the door, opened it, and with a sad smile, disappeared out into the hallway, closing the door behind him with a soft click. She returned her attention to the small package sitting on her lap. She turned it over, noting how Shawn had tied it together with a bow using kite string. She pulled the bow and watched as the thin string slid loose and fell to the floor. As she carefully unwrapped the paper, her heart stopped at what lay underneath all of the folds of paper.

Inside, Shawn had written a short note to her:

“Belle, This has gotten me through many tough times. JT’s illness, my mom’s troubles, you name it. I figured since it helped me that it would help you. Please accept this and wear it. I know it will make you feel better. Shawn.”

Belle looked through tears in her eyes as she stared at the object in the package. Shawn’s gold cross and chain lay in a small pile of gold, sparkling against the stark white paper. She picked up the chain, watching as the cross swung gently back and forth, catching reflections of color from around the room. Shawn never took off his cross, she marveled. He had once told her he would never remove it, no matter the circumstance. She quickly undid the clasp and hung the chain around her neck, fingering the smooth surface of the cross as it hung over her chest. She held it up once more to admire it, not so much for its simplistic beauty, but for the beauty of the gesture that lay behind it.

“Thank you, Shawn,” she whispered, rubbing the cross against her cheek. “Thank you.”

Joined: October 17th, 2004, 8:41 pm

June 16th, 2005, 1:51 am #10

A Shawn and Belle fanfic. This fic is Rated R.

Author's Note: This was written about 3-4 years ago, and at the time I started writing, JT was Shawn's brother. It was my first story! Happy reading.
Chapters 11 - 15

Chapter 11

She walked briskly down the corridors of University Hospital, headed for the nurses’ station to sign in for another day of volunteering. Somehow, even though she’d only been back in Salem for a little over a week, she’d allowed her grandmother, who was currently on a cruise in Alaska, to convince her to take up volunteering for the summer. She shook her head, smiling, and reached for a pen at the nurses’ desk.

Brenda, the head nurse looked up at her, her face harried and more crabby than usual, and immediately dumped a towering stack of folders on the counter for her to deliver. “Here. These need to be dropped off asap. You’ll find the departments they are to be taken to written on the front top left hand corner of each folder. Try and get those taken care of as soon as possible, because we’ll need you to work the phones here this morning.” Brenda ducked back under the counter and went back to sorting charts, silently dismissing her. Well, well, she thought. And a good morning to you, too, Brenda! She grinned, heaved the heavy stack into her arms and headed for the elevator.

“Just a little higher, Brady! You can do it! A bit more!!! Come on, let me see some more!” Carl stood next to Brady, his liquid brown-black eyes earnestly willing his patient to succeed.

Brady clutched the sides of the exercise table, eyes squeezed shut, and willed his right leg to lift to the same height as his left. Sweat beaded on his forehead, and his powerful chest heaved with exertion. It was no use, he thought. He watched as his legs dropped, dangling from the edge of the table. He closed his eyes, frustrated, and his shoulders slumped in defeat. “I can’t do it,” he said flatly. He stared at the ground, not wanting to see the worried concern in Carl’s eyes.

“Brady,” Carl said gently. “You know, you’ve done a remarkable job of recovering from those stab wounds. You’ve basically gotten back your upper body strength, and--”

“And--my legs don’t work worth a damn. You know that as well as I do.” Brady glared at Carl, his icy blue eyes angry and frustrated.

Carl sighed, trying to think of a way to get through to the angry young man. Truthfully, he was very concerned about Brady’s state of mind. He knew that Brady had been through a lot recently, and certainly the fact that he also was recovering from a spinal cord injury did not help the situation at all. He didn’t know the details, but one day after he’d mentioned that he hadn’t seen Belle around in a while, Brady told him that Belle had been there when he had been stabbed, and was very traumatized. He knew how close they were, and felt terrible that Brady’s sweet little sister had to experience something so horrible. What concerned him was that Brady still very much needed the support of his family, and from what he could tell, because of Belle’s situation, Brady seemed to be left to deal with things on his own. This was not a good thing, he thought, and it really worried him.

“All right, kid,” Carl said slowly. “You’re not telling me anything I don’t already know. But, you’re not really getting the point here. You have to remember that your progress is very connected to your attitude. What are you going to do about that?”

“Great,” Brady muttered, rolling his eyes. “A pep talk. So glad I get my daily pep talk. I was beginning to think I was going to get gypped out of my dose for the day.” He glared at Carl, his blue eyes full of challenge and hostility.

Sometimes Carl wondered what moment of insanity had overcome him when he’d voluntarily decided to become a physical therapist. He knew it was Brady’s pain and frustration speaking, but he still wanted to shake some sense into him all the same. He sighed. “Brady, I want you to listen to me. This attitude has got to go. I can tell you right now that if you don’t fight this depression with everything you’ve got, that your chances of walking again are pretty slim. You can’t just give up like this.”

Brady shook his head and laughed humorlessly. “Yeah. What bull shit that is. I thought my chances of walking again were pretty slim anyway.”

Carl leaned against the nearby wall and folded his thick, strong arms. “Well, you know that there are no guarantees. But you can’t stop trying. That’s what I keep trying to tell you.”

Brady ran his hand over his right leg and shrugged. “Whatever. Are we done yet? I got big plans at home today.” He smiled sardonically and said bitterly, “Wouldn’t want to be late to watch the game on TV.”

Carl wordlessly handed him a towel so that he could mop himself off. He took Brady’s arm and helped him slide off of the table, waiting until Brady had balanced himself on his crutches before letting go. “Brady, we still have work to do with weights before you leave. Tell you what. I have a few phone calls to make. Why don’t you take a break and then we’ll hit the weights.”

She frowned as she read the name on the last folder to be delivered. Carl Thompson, Physical Therapy. Hmmm....she remembered seeing the physical therapy department on a map somewhere. Jeez, this hospital felt enormous, especially after she’d spent the entire morning running from one end of it to another. Let’s see, she knew it was on the 4th floor, that much she remembered. At least she was already on the correct floor. Taking a guess that she was going in the right direction, she turned down a hallway and after a few minutes was rewarded by seeing at the end two clear glass doors that read “Physical Therapy Department” in large black letters across the top. She smiled in triumph and opened one of the thick glass doors that led inside.

As she walked through the door, she could see an enormous room full of various rehabilitation equipment. Nautilus machines, parallel bars, a small set of stairs, various large balls in one corner, and other items whose function she couldn’t begin to guess filled the room. She looked around the nearly empty room, searching for signs of someone who might be Carl Thompson. She saw a gray haired older man in a wheelchair lifting hand weights with the help of a woman she guessed to be his physical therapist. Well, she thought, I bet this woman knows who Carl Thompson is, and how I can find him. Whistling softly, she tucked the folder under her arm and began crossing the room to ask the woman how to find Carl when she caught a flash of movement out of the corner of her eye. Hoping that it might be Carl, she turned around.

She drew in a sharp breath and felt her knees buckle slightly. No! She thought, this can’t be right. I’m seeing things. A very tall, well-built man sat on a weight-lifting bench, his back facing her. Well, actually, to say that he was well built was the understatement of the century, she thought mischievously. Damn! The guy was built like a Greek god, complete with bulging, rippling muscles, wide shoulders, that strong back.... oh, my...get a grip, she chided herself. You can’t let yourself think of HIM! Not now! You know it’s not him. Not all tall, blond haired men are Brady Black. Brady. Yes, Brady, whom she had spent the better part of this past year trying to forget. But it couldn’t be Brady. Surely he wasn’t around this summer. Probably off at college in training for football. Anyway, if Brady was in town, she’d have heard about it by now. Salem wasn’t that big, and was full of people that loved to gossip. She fingered the folder under her arm, hating how very much this man reminded her of Brady, and how that brought back all of those painful conflicting emotions he had forced on her. But, as she stared at the man, she couldn’t help but notice that the way his blond hair curled slightly at the ends by his ears, and how he reached up to rub the back of his neck in that way that was so endearing reminded her so much of Brady that it almost brought tears to her eyes. Come on! She told herself. You’re being ridiculous. It’s not him. Besides, why would Brady be here in the physical therapy room? She shook her head, trying to remind herself of the reason she came. She had a folder to deliver, and then she could leave the blond-haired man and all of those unwanted memories of Brady behind.

Brady, wondering what the hell was taking Carl so long, was just about ready to get up and leave despite what Carl said about needing to do work with weights. He really just wanted to go home and crash. He was exhausted, frustrated, and depressed. He heard a small noise behind him, and turned around.

“Trying to sneak up on me, Carl? I---” His breath caught in his throat as he saw those incredible warm cinnamon eyes that he never thought he’d see again staring at him. Eyes that had haunted his dreams for months now, and sometimes kept him awake night after night. He gazed up into the beautiful, soulful eyes of Abigail Devereaux.

“Uh, Abby, I, Uh,” he stammered, mortified that she should see him like this. Damn! That‘s why he cut off all contact with her in the first place. Of course, in his mind’s eye, when he did meet up with her again, he was actually walking, once again a football hero, and certainly had something much more eloquent to say to her. Damn, he thought again. Damn.

Her shocked gaze soon turned into one of fury. “Brady Victor Black! What the hell are you doing in here?” She slammed the folder she carried under her arm on top of a nearby table and turned on him, hands on her narrow hips, not caring that now the older man in the wheelchair and his therapist both stared at them, their eyes wide with interest.

God, she was beautiful when she was angry, Brady thought in spite of himself. Her creamy skin on her face was highlighted by the pink tinge of anger coloring her cheeks. Her soft mouth, frowning intensely at him, made his heart patter. The delicate features of her face, framed by shoulder length mahogany curls, were deceptively angelic and sweet in their beauty. Abby, of course, was too angry to even notice Brady’s wandering eye. She paced back and forth in front of him, muttering about damn jocks, selfish men, and how they could all go to hell as she walked.

“What the hell is your problem?” She demanded. “If you weren’t twice my size, I’d throw you out that window over there. That’s the least you deserve after the way you treated me.”

Anger quickly overrode Brady’s admiration of Abby’s physical beauty, and he grabbed his crutches and pushed himself to his feet. Damn it, he thought angrily. He had sent her out of his life for her own good, so that she could move on with her life, and what the hell did she know about him anyway? He was so lost in his dark thoughts that he didn’t notice how the color drained from Abby’s face as he struggled to his feet. She hadn’t noticed his crutches until he pulled them out from under the bench where he sat. She took in the forearm crutches that hooked around his arms, and how he panted slightly with the effort of standing. Everything that he had said to her in that terrible e-mail suddenly made sense. He had basically told her he didn’t want anything to do with her anymore, and now she thought she knew why. Oh, yes, it made sense, and wasn’t it just like Brady to let pride get in the way of the best thing that had ever happened to him? She frowned, and said, her voice much calmer, “Is that why you were such a bastard to me? Tell me, Brady. Is that why you cut me out of your life? Are those crutches what all of this was about?”

Brady looked away, his handsome features twisted in dismay. It wasn’t supposed to happen like this, he thought desperately. She was never supposed to know. “Why aren’t you still in Africa?” He asked.

She glared at him. “Don’t change the subject. The point is, I’m back, and you’re busted. Big time. You didn’t want me to know, did you?”

He sighed, and smiled bitterly at her, his blue eyes cold and angry. “I meant what I said. We have nothing in common. I don’t love you. I don’t want to have anything to do with you. Get the hell out of here.”

Abby blanched slightly at his words, but refused to back down. “Oh, cut the crap, will you? Why didn’t you just tell me, instead of behaving like a depraved idiot? What did you think I’d do, run screaming away from you? Do you think so little of me that you thought I’d do such a horrible thing? God, Brady. Where’s that brain of yours anyway? I’ve known you practically your whole life and this is how you treat your best friend?”

Brady clenched his jaw, trying his hardest to keep control over his emotions. “I said,” he grated between clenched teeth, “get the hell out of here. Have you lived in Africa so long that you’ve forgotten how to understand English? I’d pick you up and show you what “Get the hell outta here” means, but, as you can see, I’m no longer a man. Can’t you see that?”

In spite of the fact that Abby could have cheerfully killed him, her heart was breaking for Brady. She didn’t know what had happened to him, but it was killing him, not being able to walk--that much she knew. She could see it in his eyes, in the despair written all over his face. She knew how important sports were to him, and how much pride he had. It was so hard to believe that he’d gone through something so terrible and she’d never known. Not that it was her fault--he’d made sure of that. Oh, Brady, she thought sadly. If only you had told me, I’d have been on the next plane to Salem to be there for you. I wouldn’t have even thought twice about it.

“What’s happened to you?” She asked softly, trying to keep the hurt out of her voice. “What happened to the Brady I knew?”

Brady could feel his legs beginning to fatigue, and slowly lowered his long frame back onto the bench. He couldn’t look at her, couldn’t stand to see the deep hurt in her eyes, knowing that he was responsible for putting it there. “I was shot in the back,” he snapped. “That’s what happened.”

Abby closed her eyes briefly, and then pulled up a chair so that they sat face to face. “Tell me,” she said softly, and reached to take one of his hands in hers. He angrily snatched it away and shoved it through his hair. Abby swallowed, willing the hurt to go away.

“I don’t need your pity,” He sneered. “I was shot in the back and paralyzed from the waist down. As you can see, I’m still a cripple, and will probably stay that way. As for the Brady you knew, well, he never existed. What you see is what you get, babe.” He paused, and leaned closer to her. God! Her delicate rose perfume filled his senses, and he clenched a fist, trying to ignore how many memories that scent brought back to him. It only angered him further, and he smiled nastily at her. “Or do you get some sort of kick out of watching the freak show? Well, babe, stare away. Hope it makes you happy!”

Abby tore her eyes away from his furious gaze and had to count to 20 before she trusted herself to answer without jumping up to smack the living daylights out of him. “You know, Brady,” she said quietly. “I disagree. I think the Brady I knew is in there somewhere. I think you’ve buried him under layer upon layer of anger.”

He laughed caustically and snarled, “Oh! So now I see that you have a degree in psychology, hmmm? What the hell do you know about how I feel?”

Abby glared at him, her brown eyes wide with rage and hurt. “Well, whose fault is THAT, hmmm?” She mimicked, crossing her arms as she spoke. “As I recall, YOU’RE the one who pushed me away, not the other way around. But I’ll tell you this much, Brady Victor. What you did to me was the most selfish, uncaring, unbelievably insensitive thing you’ve ever done!” Abby jumped to her feet, her voice rising as she allowed some of her pent up hurt and anger to explode. “HOW, I repeat, HOW could you care so little for me, and think I was so shallow that I wouldn’t want to be with you just because you can’t walk? I wouldn’t have cared if all you could move was your left eyebrow! I would have been there for you. Instead, you decided to do all of my thinking for me, and put me through seven months of absolute hell. Well, congratulations,” She hissed, leaning close to him so that they were eye to eye. “You’ve succeeded in making a mockery of how I feel--felt--about you. I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep for months, worrying what I did to make you turn on me. You took my heart and you trampled on it, caring only about what YOU wanted!” Abby panted, and paused to catch her breath, her cheeks red with fury.

Brady looked at his legs before answering. “YOU went through seven months of hell? What a laugh! What, do you think getting shot in the back is a fricking picnic?”

Abby sighed. “At least,” she said, “You knew what was going on, and why. Sometimes, Brady, emotional pain is far worse than any physical pain. And you put me through the wringer. Which brings me to one last point. I do agree with you on not being a man.”

Brady’s eyes widened with hurt and he grabbed the side of the bench in his strong grasp. “What the HELL?” He sputtered.

She smiled sweetly at him and picked up the folder that she still had to deliver. “A real man would have had the guts to tell me that he had been shot and paralyzed. A real man would have been honest from the start. A real man would not have hurt me so deeply. So, how does it feel to be right? I know how much you like that.”

Brady shrugged, not daring to look her in the eye for fear that she’d see just how right she was. “I told you. I wasn’t in love with you.”

Abby laughed. “Yeah. And the Queen of England has 3 heads. Tell yourself that all you want, Black. And I’ll tell you something else. Now that I’m onto you, you’re never going to get rid of me. I have known you since I can remember, and if anyone needs a friend, its you.”

Brady frowned at her. “I don’t need anyone,” he said darkly. “And I sure as hell don’t want your pity.”

“Fine,” she said, her voice dripping with sugar. “Good thing, too, because you ain’t getting it.” She blew him a kiss and turned around, running smack into the largest African-American man she’d ever seen. Abby was, by no means a petite woman at 5’9, but this man towered over her. He had such a funny grin on his face, and he held out his hand for her to shake. She watched, fascinated, as her slender fingers disappeared completely into his huge grasp.

“Hello, I’m Carl Thompson, Brady’s physical therapist. And you are....?”

Abby swallowed, wondering just how much Carl had heard of their conversation. “Uh, I’m Abigail Devereaux. I’m, uh, I’m volunteering here in the hospital this summer. Here. I’m supposed to deliver this to you.” She shoved the folder at him, and swung around, walking out of the room before anyone could see the flush creeping up her neck onto her face. Carl, on the other hand, had heard enough of Brady and Abby’s conversation to want to celebrate. Abby had managed to get a spark of life back in Brady’s eyes, and for that he wanted to run after her and hug her. Instead, he grinned knowingly at Brady and said simply, “Let’s get back to work.”

Chapter 12

“Belle!” John’s deep voice carried up the stairs into Belle’s room, her sanctuary over the past 2 months. She looked up from the book she was reading, barely noticing the ‘N SYNC poster hanging above her headboard, absently fingering Shawn's gold cross hanging from the chain around her neck, and decided to ignore her father’s call. She was in a rotten mood today, and didn’t want to deal with anybody. She tucked an errant strand of blonde hair behind her ear and propped her head back on her hands, settling back into the story. “Isabella, can you please come down here!!” Her father repeated, his voice much more commanding.

“Well, since you’re such a good girl,” she muttered to herself, pausing long enough to shove a brush through her hair, “I guess you’d better come out of hibernation before they come and find you!”

Well, chica, she told herself. Guess the world calls. Well, the world outside of her room anyway. Her parents, despite her insistence that she was fine, had insisted that she go see some cracked up shrink friend of her mother’s. So, every Tuesday morning she sat, sullen and sulking, in Dr. Reid’s office, waiting impatiently until he told her that she could leave. She didn’t get why she had to go see some stranger when her own mom was a shrink. But, she thought, she was fine anyway. She just needed time to get over the shock of what had happened to her. Even more important, she needed to just forget the whole terrible ordeal. Really. She was fine. Why couldn’t she be over 18 like Brady, and then she could legally tell her parents what exactly they could do with that shrink they were forcing her to see.

Brady. His name brought a film of tears to her eyes that she absolutely refused to acknowledge. He was an ass, she decided. They had not spoken a civil word to each other since that day she had visited him in the hospital, and she was glad. Glad that she finally discovered her brother’s true colors...that he was an uncaring selfish twit. Twit? She asked herself, shaking her head. God, what a loser you are, Belle Black. Thank God Brady mostly hung out in his room downstairs. That way, she didn’t have to deal with him. God, he was a pain.

She’d seen him only once this week, and it had been as she had walked to the top of the stairs from her room, intending on running downstairs and grabbing a cold soda from the fridge. He had not known she was there, and was sitting on the couch, reading a book. In spite of herself, her heart squeezed painfully at the sight of his crutches propped against the couch. She seriously pondered just going back into her room and forgetting about the drink, when she accidentally tripped and crashed into the small table in the upstairs hallway. It startled Brady out of his book, and he whipped his head around so that he could see her, an angry scowl on his face.

“What the hell?” he demanded as he stared up at her, his blue eyes stony and cold. “What are you doing? Spying on me or something? God!! Why don’t you just get a life or something and actually leave this house for 5 minutes?”

A small corner of Belle’s heart that she rarely visited these days shattered at his deliberately cruel words. She pushed the anguish she felt away and sauntered slowly down the steps, her hands on her hips as she walked. She had stopped wearing Brady’s t-shirts and shorts, and had instead begun wearing skin-tight black clothes. That day was no exception, and she wore black capris and a spaghetti strap cropped tank top.

“Oh, aren’t you one to talk?” She cooed, shoving her pain aside as she spoke. “Looks to me like you’re the king of couch potatoes,” she taunted, her eyes that were so much like his shooting cold darts of anger towards him. Brady blanched at her obvious referral to his disability.

“Go to hell,” he muttered, and returned to reading his book, not wanting Belle to see in his eyes the raw pain at the rift he had deliberately caused between them.

“ISABELLA, NOW, PLEASE!” John bellowed from the bottom of the stairs, interrupting her unpleasant memories of her brother.

Don’t have a conniption, she thought irritably. Keep your shirt on, Pops. I’m coming. She threw her book down on the bed, not really caring that it bounced off of the edge and landed with a dull thud on her cream carpet. She strolled to her door and opened it, slamming it behind her much harder than necessary, and hearing with satisfaction the loud crash of the door behind her as it rattled into its frame.

She hurried down the stairs, not even trying to conceal her irritation at her father’s unwelcome intrusion into her reading. She halted close to the bottom of the stairs in dismay, as she took in the scene that awaited her. Shawn and Meems stood in the living room, and oh, did he look good enough to eat. She couldn’t help but notice how his eyes shone softly at her with such welcoming warmth, and she knew she didn’t deserve any of it. But, how could she not notice how good he looked in that tight red t-shirt and jeans that fit so well--Stop it, Belle! She told herself. The bigger problem was that she didn’t understand why her dad had let them see her. She had been refusing to see any of her friends since that awful night 2 months ago, and that suited her just fine. She glared at her father, who stood leaning casually against one of the couches.

John’s heart broke as he drank in the sight of his daughter. She had become a stranger to them, wearing this mask of anger that aged her sweet, beautiful face way beyond her 17 years. It gave her a hardened, seasoned edge that was so out of place on Belle. He wondered again at the wisdom of he and Doc in allowing her to dress in such tight clothes. Today she wore a skin-tight knit black mini skirt and tank with black platform sandals. John wanted to take off his blue denim shirt and cover his daughter up, but he refrained, remembering that Marlena had assured him that it was only Belle’s way of working through her anger about what had happened to her. He sighed and smiled at Belle, who stood on the steps, hands on her hips, an angry frown pulling on her lips.

“You have guests, Sweetheart,” he said softly, his deep blue eyes shining with love for her.

Belle rolled her eyes at her father and snorted, “I can see that, Dad. I do have eyes. You can tell those ‘guests’ that I don’t want them here.”

Shawn and Mimi couldn’t help but exchange shocked stares. THIS was Belle? Belle, who had a seemingly insatiable appetite for all of the latest fashions, stood in front of them dressed trampier than Jan Spears ever could dream of dressing? Oh, Belle, Shawn thought sadly. She looked so fragile, like a rare exquisite painting that had been crudely spattered with spray paint. The only sign that his Belle was hidden somewhere underneath her tight clothes and anger was in the cross and chain he had given her, peeking out from under the neck line of her tank top. Belle, why are you doing this? Don’t you see that you’re so beautiful, so wonderful? I have to help you believe that again, he thought. And, I’m not going to give up on you.

“Now, Izzy,” John said quietly. “Don’t you think it’s about time you started seeing your friends again? Shawn and Mimi thought you might like to go to lunch this afternoon.”

John had to really admire Shawn’s maturity in handling the whole situation with Belle. As much as he didn’t want to admit that his baby girl was old enough to be interested in boys, he couldn’t ask for someone better than Shawn for his Isabella. Shawn had come to their house every day, not asking to see Belle if she didn’t want to see him, not even asking to talk to her. He always brought Belle a letter in a sealed white envelope and asked that they give it to her, and that she call him if she felt like it, which she never did.

“Hey, Belle,” Mimi said, forcing a smile on her face, her huge brown eyes full of worry. “You gotta eat, right? What do you say? We can go to that little Thai place that you love so much. It’ll be fun.”

Belle stood uncertainly on the steps, and Shawn noticed the glimmer of vulnerability in her amazing blue eyes. He also saw the desire to want to believe that she could actually enjoy herself with her friends flash across her face before she retreated once again behind her mask of anger. She looked back and forth between her father and her friends, feeling very much ganged up on.

“Fine,” she snapped. “But all we’re going to do is go to lunch. Then you’re going to take me home again. Got it? I don’t have all afternoon to waste in a restaurant.” Shawn held up his hands in tacit agreement, and Belle turned and ran back up the stairs to her room, her blonde hair bouncing on her shoulders as she went. “Gotta get my purse,” she muttered and she disappeared up to the second floor.

The front door banged open, startling John as he turned his head from watching Belle run upstairs. Brady stood in the doorway, leaning on his crutches, panting slightly as he scowled at the occupants of the room. God, John thought, if we all make it through this summer in one piece, it will be a miracle. “How’d your therapy session go, son?” He asked, concerned at the exhaustion etched on his son’s handsome features as Brady limped into the living room.

Brady shrugged slightly, staring at the floor. He wished Belle’s little friend Mimi and his cousin would stop staring at him and just go away. “Fine.”

“Need an ice pack or something?” John asked, noticing with dismay that Brady still struggled to use his right leg, as he had done since that night on the pier.

“I said I’m fine, Dad,” Brady repeated, irritation slipping into his voice. Or course he wasn’t fine, he thought angrily. If he was fine he’d be able to walk, and he’d be able to get Abby Devereaux off of his mind. It had only been a week since she had crashed back into his life, and it had been a week of very little sleep, and more than a few cold showers. Brady was so lost in his thoughts that he forgot to pay attention to where he put his feet, and his right foot caught on the edge of the large oriental rug that sat in the center of the living room. He grabbed harder onto his crutches, trying to keep his balance, but it didn’t help. His legs gave away, and he fell to the floor. Damn! He thought angrily, as his dad ran over to help him up. Sure, it was just Shawn and Mimi that stood staring at him, but he was still humiliated that he fell in front of them, humiliated to see the pity in their eyes that they couldn’t quite hide from him. John squatted down next to him, concern in his loving blue eyes.

“Need a hand, son?” He asked softly, so that only Brady could hear him.

Belle stood at the top of the stairs, her little black leather backpack purse slung over her left shoulder. She had seen Brady fall, and as much as she didn’t want to admit it, it hurt to see how hard such a seemingly easy thing as walking across the room was for her brother. She watched as Brady shook off her father’s hand and struggled to his feet, and waited until he was solidly back on his feet before she came back downstairs.

Shawn wished he could escape the tense atmosphere of the room, and was never gladder to see Belle than he was as she trotted down the stairs. He smiled at her, and her heart raced in response. Was he imagining the hint of lip-gloss on her otherwise make-up free pale face? His heart sang as she returned a tiny, almost imperceptible smile of her own. “Ready?” He asked, not even remembering that there were other people in the room besides he and Belle. That tiny smile of hers made him feel like a million dollars, and he noticed with pleasure that she dropped her gaze and self-consciously fingered the gold chain from which his cross hung.

“Enjoy the show from your balcony seat?” Brady snarled to Belle as he slowly lowered himself onto the couch and propped his crutches next to him.

The fragile light of pleasure faded from Belle’s eyes, and Shawn saw such deep anguish cross her face that if John hadn’t been standing there, he would have beaten the living daylights out of Brady--crutches or not. How could Brady be such a bastard to her? He wondered angrily. He lived with her! Couldn’t he see what pain his little sister was in? Shawn never thought he’d see the day when Brady would willingly hurt Belle in any way, and it filled him with intense animosity and resentment. He clenched his fist, willing it to stay firmly by his side. It wasn’t easy, and it took every ounce of will power that he possessed not to slam it into Brady’s face.

John glared at his son, his face darkening with anger, for he, too had seen Belle’s tentative smile at Shawn, and had been rejoicing that his decision to force her to spend time with her friends had been a good one. He leaned down so that he was eye to eye with Brady. “Son,” he said softly, dangerously, “WE need to have a discussion. After your sister leaves with her friends. Until she leaves, you will not say ONE word to her. Am I clear, Brady?” Brady shrugged, glaring back at his dad. He dropped his eyes when it became clear that his father was very disappointed in him, and that his father’s disappointment couldn’t come close to matching how he felt about himself.

Belle walked past Brady and leaned down close to him. “Go to hell,” she whispered, patted him a bit harder than necessary on the cheek, and stood up, fury written all over her face as she stalked angrily to the door.

John waited until Belle, Shawn, and Mimi were out the door before he lit into his son. Here it comes, Brady thought as his father turned to face him, his normally loving face contorted with rage. Good one, Brady, you’re just a fricking genius, aren’t you? John paced back and forth in front of him, trying to compose himself before he spoke to his son.

“I don’t know what the hell has gotten into you,” John snapped, “But do you realize that your sister has been through more in the past two months than most people experience in one lifetime? She’s really hurting, Brady, and you of all people should understand that. And don’t tell me that this attitude is coming from your frustration with your disability, because that’s getting real old, son. Real old. Belle didn’t shoot you in the back, and she didn’t do a damn thing to deserve what happened to her. All I know is that she’s been tiptoeing around you ever since you got out of the hospital, and it’s going to stop. It’s going to stop now, do you understand? Belle deserves a home that is peaceful, full of good, safe, warm feelings, so that she can heal. If you can’t be pleasant to her, than you will say nothing to her. Am I clear?”

Brady shrugged, unaware that his face revealed all of the conflicting emotions that were at war inside of him. Dad doesn’t understand, he thought bitterly. It’s not like these damn legs can be repaired with a band-aid and will be fine in a few days. He’s acting like I don’t have a right to be angry that my life has been ruined. Yeah, Brady, that other voice chipped in. Your life has been ruined? What about Belle, whose trust in people has been shattered? What was it Abby had said about emotional pain being far worse than physical pain? Don’t you think that you’re not helping her any by being such a cold bastard to her? He couldn’t help but remember Abby’s furious declaration that he’d been such a selfish bastard by not telling her that he had been shot and paralyzed, and he saw the truth in what she said, no matter how much he’d like to deny it. Maybe, Brady, he told himself, you’re treating Belle the way you are because of your precious wounded male ego. Damn. Now that hurt, he thought angrily, and shoved that thought aside. Anger, his constant companion of the past year won the battle of emotions, and it drove him to yell at his father.

“What the hell?” He demanded, his face full of furious hurt. “Why is everything always about your precious Belle? Do you think I asked her to come to the pier that night? Do you think I wanted her there? What about what I need? There’s not a person on this planet that can give me what I need--a pair of legs that actually work!”

John raked an exasperated hand through his dark hair. “Damn it, son, knock it off! We are going to focus on what your sister needs because she’s younger than you, and is not dealing well with what happened to her. She’s in a world of hurt, and we can’t allow her pain to turn her into someone that she’s not. I know you know this, son, and I can’t understand where this unacceptably selfish attitude is coming from! I--”

Marlena, who had come home from work unnoticed by the angry pair in the living room, cleared her throat as she dumped her brief case and keys on the table by the door. She gave John a knowing, meaningful look and turned to face her angry stepson. Damn! Why the hell does she have to come and butt in, Brady thought. He glared up at her from his seat on the couch as she pulled over a chair so that she could talk face to face with him. She smoothed her cream-colored suit skirt as she sat, the only evidence of her impatience with Brady showing in the slight narrowing of her dark eyes. John walked over to stand behind his wife, and he laid gentle hands on her shoulders, giving his silent support to her in a very difficult situation as he softly rubbed the back of her neck with his thumbs.

“Brady,” she began quietly, searching her stepson’s angry features for a sign of the sensitive person she knew was hidden behind all of that hurt and pain. “We only want to help you. You do realize that you’re not helping yourself at all, don’t you? You need to get over this self-pity! Maybe if you could find it in your heart to be kind to your sister, then maybe you’d find that you will heal faster.”

Brady looked incredulously from his father to Marlena, his eyes wide with shocked contempt. “Oh. I see how it is,” He sneered, his face twisted with anger. “And I bet you planned this, didn’t you? Let’s make sure that Brady knows just how things are going to work around here.” He pounded an angry fist on the soft cushion of the couch. “And what the hell do you know about what’s in my heart, Marlena?” He asked, not caring that his father’s eyes narrowed with disapproval at his son’s words. “You’re so smug, sitting there in your designer suit, thinking that you have me all figured out. Well, let me tell you something. I know exactly what’s going on here. Oh, yeah, I have your number, Doc. You see, you think it’s all MY fault, what happened to Belle, don’t you? It’s my fault that she was abducted by that bastard, because I was at the pier in the first place! And, last but by no means least, it’s ALL my fault that I couldn’t do a damn thing to save her, isn’t it?”

Brady stared at Marlena, hostile challenge written in the stony set of his chiseled jaw, and he was rewarded with a guilty flicker in his stepmother’s eyes as she briefly looked away from him. He ignored the betraying stab of pain that shot through his heart, and grabbed his crutches, trying to make his stiff body stand. Damn his pride in not accepting an ice pack when he had gotten home, he thought as he tried to force his uncooperative legs to straighten. He felt a strong hand on his arm, and looked up to see his dad, his dark blue eyes worried despite that fact that he wanted to strangle his son for being so damn difficult, and grudgingly allowed his dad to help him to his feet.

“Brady,” Marlena protested, rising to stand as he did. She pleaded silently with him for understanding, to understand that she truly did care about him. “That’s not true. I’ve never said that!”

He slowly turned his head and smiled sadly, suddenly too tired to argue anymore. “You didn’t have to,” he whispered, defeated, and began limping towards his room. “And, you’re right.” He finished softly, unaware that Marlena and his father had heard him, and stared after him with shocked dismay.

Chapter 13

Shawn pulled his mom’s dark blue Honda Accord into the parking lot of the Thai Palace, one of Salem’s best-kept secrets. Belle sat in the passenger seat beside him, staring straight ahead. She hadn’t said a word the whole way to the restaurant, and he highly doubted that she had taken in any more of Mimi’s incessant chatter than he did. “Well, ladies,” he said cheerily, “Here we are!” Belle blinked, stirred a bit and undid her seat belt. She wordlessly grabbed her purse and reached for the handle on the car door. Mimi kept up her endless babble as they walked around to the front of the restaurant, a small one story building that made the words “THAI PALACE” proclaimed in huge red letters over the door seem like a bad joke. Shawn held the door for them as they entered the cool air-conditioned room that was a welcome contrast to the muggy hot sun outside. A young Asian woman of about 25 met them at the door with a smile and immediately led them to their table.

“And, so I couldn’t believe it when she looked into Ewan McGregor’s eyes, and oh! Belle, he’s such a babe! You just wouldn’t believe it! He has those EYES, and the way he looked at her, knowing finally that she was dying...” Mimi prattled enthusiastically as she sat down in her chair, tugging wistfully on one short brown curl as she sighed and rolled her big brown eyes heavenward.

The hostess smiled in amusement at Mimi and said, while Mimi paused to take a breath, “What would you like to drink?”

“Water,” Belle said shortly, glaring at Mimi in annoyance. What WAS she talking about anyway? She wondered irritably.

“Diet Coke,” Mimi said, and then launched into another stream of one-sided conversation. “OH! It was so sad, Belle! You just have to see this movie! It’s so strange, AND it has....” and she paused for dramatic effect, making sure that Shawn and Belle both had their utmost undivided attention on her. “EWAN!!” She gushed, plopping her head dreamily on her hands, and Shawn rolled his eyes. Oh, boy, he thought. This was going to be a looong lunch. Belle isn’t speaking, she’s only here because her dad made her come, and Mimi won’t stop swooning like a lovesick puppy.

“And, another thing...he can SING!” She proclaimed joyously, grinning widely at Belle and Shawn, waiting for them to share in the love.

“Mimi,” Belle said tiredly, briefly closing her eyes and wishing she had brought an aspirin to take away the headache her friend was giving her, “Put a sock in it.”

Mimi’s mouth snapped shut, and wounded hurt settled in her dark brown eyes. She opened up her menu and began studying it intently, suddenly finding all of the delectable items on the menu far more interesting than the present company she was keeping.

A young man came to take their orders, blissfully unaware of the tense atmosphere surrounding their little table. He had to blink and then swallow hard when he caught a closer look at how clearly Belle’s scant outfit defined her figure. Shawn didn’t miss the waiter’s appreciative eye, and he frowned. He moved his chair a little bit closer to Belle, who was too busy studying her menu to notice. She’s taken, Shawn thought defensively, so don’t get any ideas. They all ordered, and then a deafening silence once again ruled the table. Belle stared off into space, studiously trying to avoid Shawn’s eyes. Mimi pouted, her arms folded across her chest, and Shawn wanted to scream. Women! He thought darkly. Why couldn’t they just do without all of this ridiculous drama? What about a nice, civilized pleasant conversation about anything--what they were about to eat, what kind of nail polish or hair stuff they used, even the weather, for crying out loud!!! He sighed loudly, and Belle smirked in spite of herself, knowing exactly what he was thinking.

“Mimi,” Belle said, and Mimi turned to look at her, not quite ready to forgive Belle’s latest offense.

“What?” She asked petulantly, and Belle could have sworn that Mimi’s lower lip stuck out just slightly in a full-blown pout.

“Join me in the ladies’ room.” It was a statement, not a question, and Mimi for once didn’t argue. She silently slid out of her chair and followed Belle to the restroom. Shawn couldn’t help but appreciate the view of Belle from behind as she sauntered away. That little twitch she had going on...hmmm! He’d never known about that one. Maybe there WERE advantages to her new dress code. But then, a new thought struck him, if he noticed, then, so must all of the rest of the male population. It was a sobering thought, he figured bleakly, and reached to take a sip of his coke.

The two girls entered the ladies’ room, and Belle dropped her purse on a nearby padded bench. She flopped down on the bench and patted the seat next to her. Mimi sank down next to her and stared stonily forward, her face still full of hurt. Belle rolled her eyes, and was having a very tough time between wanting to smack Mimi and wanting to hug her. At least, she thought, Mimi was being Mimi. She was literally the only person since--IT---had happened that treated her just the same, and for that she was grateful.

“Thanks,” She said to Mimi, and smiled shyly at her, dropping the armor of anger she wore around other people for the first time in weeks.

For once, Mimi was left speechless. She stared, wide-eyed, at Belle, who at the moment, with her skimpy black attire, hardly resembled the best friend she knew and loved. “For what?” She asked, blinking with surprise.

Belle sighed and crossed her slender legs. “For being Mimi. For throwing a fit when I told you to shut up. For not being afraid to be yourself around me.”

Mimi smiled softly at her friend and shrugged. “How else could I be?” She asked simply. She paused, and then studied Belle thoughtfully. “Are you ok?”

Belle’s defenses shot back up and she stood up. “Sure I’m ok. Why wouldn’t I be? What kind of a stupid question is that?” She asked quickly, turning so that Mimi couldn’t read the anger in her face.

Mimi stood uncertainly, unsure of how to take this new, unfamiliar Belle. “Well,” she said slowly as she looked in the mirror and fluffed her hair around the clips she wore. “I guess your new, um, look kind of made me wonder is all.” She leaned closer to the mirror, half afraid that Belle would go off on her.

Instead, Belle just shrugged, her light blue eyes not quite hiding the pain buried deep inside. “Maybe I thought it was time for a change,” she said flatly, clearly not wanting to discuss the matter further.

Mimi nodded, not wanting to spoil their afternoon with any more questions, and quietly followed Belle back to the table where Shawn sat, his dark brows furrowed, industriously trying to battle his uncooperative chopsticks into usable eating utensils. Mimi grinned at him as she unfolded her napkin and laid it on her lap.

“Going for the chopsticks this time, are you?” She teased lightly, and pointedly picked up her fork and dug it into a piece of chicken.

Belle watched Shawn’s antics with secret amusement. He had finally resorted to using only one chopstick and just spearing one piece of food at a time. Sort of like the one finger method of typing, she thought amusedly.

“Why don’t you stop being such a guy and just use a fork?” She asked saucily, and was rewarded by a surprised wide-eyed stare from him as his chopstick halted midway to his mouth. He blinked at her, not sure of what to say or do next. THIS was the Belle he loved, he thought joyfully. He grinned devilishly at her, his chocolate eyes twinkling with mirth. He very slowly brought the chopstick to his mouth, never losing eye contact with her, completely oblivious to Mimi’s saucer-eyed gawking, and slowly, deliberately took a bite of curried chicken, sending chills shivering down Belle’s spine.

“It gets the job done, doesn’t it?” He asked mildly, a huge grin spreading across his face as Belle blushed. Her lovely heart-shaped face turned a very appealing shade of pink indeed, Shawn thought wickedly.

At the same time, all of Belle’s good feelings slammed to a sudden, screeching halt, only to be replaced by anger and fear. What was wrong with her? She wondered sadly. Why couldn’t she be like everyone else and just enjoy an afternoon out with her friends? She felt like such a freak, and she swallowed angrily.

“Whatever,” She said shortly, glaring at Shawn through narrowed blue eyes. “I said earlier I don’t want to be here all afternoon, and at the rate you’re going, we’ll be here until Christmas.” She picked up her spoon and began sipping her soup, staring down into her bowl. Shawn and Mimi exchanged questioning glances, and Shawn sighed sadly.

“Ok, Belle. We won’t take all day,” he answered softly. She refused to look at him, and grunted in response.

The conversation after that stayed mainly to safe topics, like grades, what subjects in school that they hated, favorite animals, things that Mimi and Shawn thought Belle would feel safe in discussing. Shawn could have kicked himself. You idiot! He berated himself. You KNEW how fragile she was, and you tried to get her, um, interested!! What a dumb ass, you are, Brady! Next time, keep that libido fully in check, Brady, or else you’ll find yourself without your best friend. Permanently. He smiled stiffly at Belle, a gesture she misinterpreted as anger directed towards her, and she retaliated by raising one eyebrow and gazed unblinkingly at him. She leaned back slowly in her chair, a gesture that Shawn found incredibly appealing (woah, Brady, he reminded himself), and stared coldly at him. Where was this coming from? He wondered, bewildered, as he sensed the heated resentment emanating from her. She pointedly broke eye contact with him and resumed sipping her soup, her delicate features wrapped in stony anger.

They drove back to Belle’s house in silence, and Shawn couldn’t help but wonder if Belle had even opened any of the letters that he had delivered to her. He knew that she had been through so much, but was it too much to ask for her to at least acknowledge his heartfelt words? She’d never even said one word about the cross he’d given her, although she did at least wear it. As they pulled up in front of Belle’s building, the anger that Shawn had been fighting began to bud, and he couldn’t wait for Belle to get out of the car. He was afraid that he would let her have it, and that was the last thing she needed right how. He stared away from the passenger side of the car, focusing on the cars that whizzed by on the street as she quietly slipped out onto the sidewalk that crossed in front of her high-rise building.

“Shawn?” She asked tentatively, her soft blue eyes full of questioning vulnerability. “Would you please walk me in?”

He wouldn’t have been more surprised if she had informed him that, yes Santa Claus was actually real, and that the Easter Bunny was actually a close family friend. He blinked, left momentarily speechless, and then turned to Mimi, who sat playing with her nails in the back seat of the car.

“I’ll just be a minute, Meems,” He whispered, and she gave him quick grin and a thumbs up on her lap where Belle couldn’t see it.

He crawled out of the driver’s seat and walked around to join Belle. Two men in clean, pressed suits walked past Belle, clearly ogling her scantily clad trim body as they walked. She stared defiantly back at them, silently daring them to say a word to her. They continued in their walk, but Shawn saw one make a gesture to his companion, undoubtedly about Belle’s many physical attributes. Shawn would have wrapped a protective arm around her shoulders if he had thought she would allow it. She slung her purse over her shoulder and sauntered into her building, barely nodding to the friendly doorman who had known her since she was a little girl. The doorman watched in confusion first as Belle slipped past him, not even returning his greeting, and then as that young man that was so stuck on her followed right in her footsteps.

They crossed the lobby, a rather strange pair with Shawn in his casual jeans and t-shirt, and Belle sporting her tight black finery. Belle pressed the elevator button and turned to Shawn, a slight smile in her eyes. She sighed and ran her hand through her hair, briefly lifting it off of her elegant neck before allowing it to once again tickle her bare shoulders.

“Shawn, I’m sorry,” She said quietly, looking at the tiled floor as she spoke. She reached up and began playing with the cross.

He cocked his head at her, his eyes questioning. “Sorry? What for?”

She shrugged and watched her toes wiggle in her black sandal. “I don’t know. I guess, you guys came to take me to lunch and I ruined it.”

Shawn swallowed the lump that had suddenly formed in his throat. “Oh, Belle,” he said softly and had to work hard to remember not to touch her arm, even though his fingers itched to rub it lightly. “Don’t be sorry. Meems and I are just glad you came along. It will get easier the next time. I promise.”

She stared thoughtfully at the simple gold cross, and, appropriately, she could see his kind, beloved face reflected in the shiny flat gold surface. “Ok.” She answered. “I’m, I’m, I’m just not sure when I can do this again.” She looked at him with pleading blue eyes that captured his heart. “It was hard, you know.”

He nodded and smiled gently at her. “You did great, Perfect Girl. We--I--won’t give up on you. We’ll do this again very soon. You need to do this soon. You know. It’s like riding a bike or something. You’re just out of practice, but you won’t forget how.”

Belle blinked back the tears that burned in her eyes. “Well,” she said, forcing her voice to sound tough, unemotional, uncaring. “At least you made me forget what it’s like at home.”

Shawn inwardly groaned. The last thing he wanted to do right now was discuss his jackass of a cousin. Instead, he wanted Belle to take as many positive feelings home with her as she could. “You can call me anytime,” he told her, his brown eyes shining warmly at her. She nodded as the elevator arrived, ready to shuttle her back up to the penthouse.

“I know,” She answered as she stepped into the warmly lit car. She paused, her finger on the hold button as she looked through the doorway at him. “I, um, think you’re a good writer.” She said shyly, and he watched, touched, as she disappeared behind the heavy sliding doors.

Chapter 14

Belle lay on her stomach on her bed, poring once again over her pile of all of the letters that Shawn had taken to delivering to the penthouse daily. They were treasures, each and every one of them, and she smiled as she read his latest creation. Yawning, she checked her watch and saw that it was nearly 2am. Well, girl, she told herself as she stretched her arms lazily above her head. Guess you’d better think about sleeping sometime tonight. She had quite a bit to think about after today’s events. Between her brother’s horrible behavior and her lunch with Meems and Shawn, she felt washed over with conflicting emotions. On the one hand, it had felt so good to recover a little bit of her old self, hanging out with her best friends. But, it was just not the same, and that’s where the trouble lay. As much as she had desperately wanted to, she couldn’t just let go and have fun. She didn’t know why, because certainly the desire to have a good time had been there. And then there was this business with her family. Somehow, all of her anger had become focused on her parents, and she knew it hurt them terribly when she was so nasty to them. She couldn’t help it, she thought sadly. Perhaps if Belle had been a little older, a little wiser, she might have realized that her actions towards her parents reflected the fact that she knew they’d love her no matter what she did, no matter how horribly she behaved, and she needed that fact to be proven over and over as she tried to deal with the aftermath of what had been done to her. And then there was Brady. Brady. Yeah, her hero big brother turned into first class jerk. Better not to think about him, Belle, she told herself. It’s late enough that he should be in bed or at least in his room, she thought. Good, because he was being such an ass. She had to go downstairs to grab her clean pajamas from the laundry, and she really didn’t have the energy to deal with Brady at the moment.

Brady lay on his back in his bed, one strong arm flung over his forehead as he tried in vain to sleep. To say that it had been a rough day would be an understatement, he thought sourly. Ah, Brady. How can thee be an asshole? Let me count the ways. First, take a certain little sister whom he no longer recognized. He had to admit, she gave him a pretty good run for his money in the constant angry scowl department. How many times had he wished he could just take back that night on the pier? Why the hell hadn’t he just insisted that she call a cab and go home? And then, she’d still be the sweet, happy girl who loved to live life to the fullest. He’d really screwed up that night, and for that, he would never be able to forgive himself. Never. Also, it infuriated him that Belle’s formerly strong, protective older brother was about as able as an infant to protect her from harm. Yeah. And how do you handle it, Brady? He asked himself sarcastically. By being the asshole du jour every time you see her. Belle was truly starting to scare him. He could no longer see the lively spark in her eyes, and the light that had once shone from her that was so pure, so sweet had been replaced with a darkness he never thought he’d see in Belle.

What about that cozy little chat with Dad and Marlena? What about that LOOK in Doc’s eyes when he had called her on her blaming him for Belle’s situation? Hell, he thought. It’s not like you’d have to be a raving genius to figure that one out. If she thought he’d purposely try to kill his own little sister by holding her down in front of a moving train, then how much of a stretch of the imagination was it to think that she would blame him for this, too? Of course there was a big difference this time. This time she was right. This time--enough, Brady, he told himself sternly. This is not getting you anywhere. It’s not like any of those hurt feelings matter, do they? It’s not like anybody cares anyway.

Somewhere, buried deep inside of him, buried so deep that Brady was not even aware that he even still existed, was that same little boy that had adored Marlena. That little boy that used to take Marlena’s hand so trustingly, and ask her question after question. She had told him affectionately that he was such a little sponge, soaking up answer after answer, and had patiently answered any question he’d ask....

“Mama, why are some people so mean?” Little blond haired Brady asked Marlena as they sat together, enjoying an after school snack of milk and cookies. Chocolate chip, of course, with those big gooey chips that got all over your fingers. “I mean, Bobby Hill tried really hard to get to base. Honest he did. I saw him! He ran real hard, and he couldn’t get there fast enough, and then their team was out. All of the kids were so mean to him, ‘cause he couldn’t get there fast. But I told him he did a good job anyways--even though he wasn’t on my team. It wasn’t fair, Mama! He wanted to get to base, I know he did.” He paused, dipping his cookie into his cup of cold frothy milk with chubby fingers. Marlena smiled at him with pride. He was such a great little guy, always rooting for the underdog, she thought. Always wanting things to be ‘fair’, always wanting everyone to be happy.

She smiled, her brown eyes soft and affectionate, and said softly. “Sweetheart, make sure you lean over the table when you take a bite.” He nodded, his big blue eyes shining, and almost made it to the table before crumbs spilled onto his lap.

She hid a small smile and sighed, trying to figure out how to put a complicated answer into words a 7 year-old could understand. “Well, Brady, sometimes people don’t understand that winning is not as important as having fun. That it’s just a game, and it should be fun! And, as long as everyone tries their best, that’s all that matters. I’m very proud of you for remembering that, sweetheart.”

Brady shook his head and blinked unseeingly into the nighttime darkness. Where had THAT come from? He had forgotten all about that little disgustingly heartwarming chat from so long ago. Well, that little boy no longer existed, and he was glad. Can’t get along in this world and be so damn sappy. Nope. People just ran over you if you were. He knew. From personal experience. No, it was much better to just stay tough. Much better.

There was one more problem that was keeping him awake, aside from the fact that his back felt like someone was wringing out his spine like a wet towel. That problem was Abby Devereaux. Every time he closed his eyes, Abby’s shining cinnamon eyes floated into view, and her sparkling smile taunted him. She had once again managed to crawl under his skin, to invade his thoughts and, in the event that he actually managed to sleep, his dreams. Ever since the shooting, he had worked so hard to forget her, to forget how special she was, how amazing she was, and then in less than 5 minutes, she had managed to turn his entire carefully constructed world completely upside down.

Brady looked around in the dark as he pondered whether or not it was worth trying one more time to sleep, or whether he should just give it up and go out to the living room and watch a movie. He sighed as he tried to find a comfortable position, one that would ease the relentless throbbing ache in his back. Nothing new there, Brady, he told himself. You should be used to this shit by now, because, having one hell of a sore back all the time was par for the course when one had been shot in the back. He rubbed his forehead with his thumb and forefinger, and reached up to switch on the lamp on his bedside table, illuminating his room with its soft glow. He threw the dark blue sheets off of his long legs, and sat up, wincing as his back protested the movement. He pushed his legs over the side of the bed with his hand and reached for his crutches. Gritting his teeth, he pulled himself to his feet and began to slowly limp to the living room.

The quiet darkness of the living room was serene and peaceful, and all he could hear was the quiet rhythm of the clock on the wall as it steadily ticked. Brady yawned and tried to decide which movie he would watch. As he neared the couch, the pain in his back began to intensify beyond the point of being able to ignore it, and he was forced to sit down. He leaned back into the soft pillows spread on the arm of the couch, trying to breathe his way through what was turning into a nasty back spasm. He squinted his eyes shut, willing the pain to disappear into his patterned breathing, a trick Carl had long ago shown him that normally worked very well. He heard a small noise, and cracked open one blue eye to see Belle, standing in the downstairs hall doorway, her eyes wide, staring at him. She held a pair of pink pajamas in one hand, and a root beer in the other. She could tell by his clenched jaw and pinched mouth that he was really hurting. It was almost as if someone had turned back the clock to that point in time before that night on the pier, and her first thought when she saw her brother was one of deep love and concern, rather than deep anger and bewildered hurt.

“Brady?” She whispered questioningly. “What’s wrong?” She set down her pajamas and drink and cautiously padded over to where he lay on the couch.

Brady shook his head, afraid the pain would show in his voice. “Nothing,” he said, his voice rougher than he intended. “Just go to bed, all right?”

Belle stood hesitantly in front of him, unsure that her going to bed and leaving him there alone would be the best thing for him. As she leaned in for a closer look, she couldn’t help but notice a thin sheen of sweat that shone on his forehead.

“Brady, I’m going to go get Dad.” She turned to head for the stairs when he stopped her.

“Wait,” he grunted. “Don’t do that. Please. I’m fine.” He winced as another spasm gripped his back, and he dug his fingernails into his palms. Belle shook her head at her brother, wanting to smack him for being such a stubborn jerk.

“You are not fine, and you’re a terrible liar,” she told him as she leaned over him and flipped on the lamp that occupied the end table behind his head. They both squinted into the unfamiliar light, and Belle studied him more carefully once her eyes adjusted. His face seemed drawn and had a grayish pallor. She noticed that dark circles had formed shadows underneath his eyes. Had he been sleeping at all these days, she wondered. He lay on the couch, clad only in a pair of gray sweatpants, and his broad toned, sculpted chest still
bore the marks of his encounter with the knife. The scar from his surgery ran vertically across his abdomen, still angry and red. She could see the other crisscrossed lines left by the knife, which, Dr. Wesley had assured Brady, would fade in time.

He momentarily closed his eyes, and, as often happened when he was around his little sister, he saw the unwelcome steel glint of a knife blade in the glow of the moonlight, reminding him once again of that night on the pier. But, he was just too tired to react. Too tired and sore, and right now, all he cared about was making the pain go away. Belle, uncertainty shadowing her face, looked upstairs in the direction of her parents’ room.

“I don’t care what you want,” she snapped, disguising her fear with anger. “I’m going to get Dad, and unless you have an epiphany and can suddenly walk again, there’s not a damn thing you do about it.” She retreated back up the stairs, snatching her pajamas and soda as she went. Brady shifted on the couch and sighed in exasperation. If nothing else, he and his sister shared an unbelievable stubborn streak. He reached over his head and fished around on the end table until his fingers closed on the remote for the TV. He pointed it at the screen and clicked on the TV, looking for something to take his mind off of his back.

John jogged down the stairs, wearing only a pair of pajama bottoms, his eyes bleary from sleep and worry. He knelt down by his son, trying very hard not to let Brady see the fear in his eyes.

“Son?” He questioned softly. “Belle tells me that you’re not doing too well. Want to tell me where it hurts?” John gently removed the remote from his son’s fingers, turned off the TV, and laid a gentle hand on Brady’s shoulder.

Brady glared at his father before answering. “Where else would it hurt?” He asked shortly, wincing as another spasm squeezed his back. “My fricking back is spasming on me.” He turned his head away from his father, not wanting him to see that he was in pain.

“Watch your language,” John said automatically, and said, since this was not the first time Brady had been through this, “I’ll go get you an ice pack and some of those muscle relaxers Dr. Wesley prescribed for you. Hang in there, kid.” He patted Brady on the shoulder and stood up.

Belle, changed into her pink pajama tank top and shorts, tiptoed back down the stairs as she watched her father head off to the kitchen. Part of her wanted to just stay in her room and let their father deal with Brady, but she had something to say to him, something that she needed to get off her chest. She’d never seen him go through one of these spasms before because he’d always been very careful to keep them from her, and it worried her to see him like this. She walked over to the couch where Brady lay, panting slightly, and sat gingerly on the edge next to him, causing him to turn to face her. “Great,” he groaned. “Just what I need, another Florence Nightingale.”

Belle looked down at her hands curled on her lap, playing with her thumbs. “I’m sorry.” She said simply, softly. So softly, in fact, that Brady could hardly hear her. He blinked in surprise, thinking she was referring to his present nasty quip.

“Uh, Belle, really there’s no need--”

But Belle vehemently shook her head and pleaded with her eyes for him to let her talk. Brady shifted uncomfortably on the couch, and opened his mouth to finish his sentence when John reappeared, carrying the ice pack, a glass of water, and two pills. He helped Brady sit up, placed a pillow and ice pack behind his son’s back, and then gave him the pills as Brady sank back down onto the couch.

“Damn, I feel like I’m 90, not 19,” he muttered grumpily after swallowing the pills.

John smiled, glad that his son could find some humor in a very humorless situation and looked back and forth between his children. Belle had moved from the couch while John had been attending to Brady, and was now kneeling on the floor by her brother. He knew how close they were, and how very much they loved each other despite the feud that seemed to have erupted between them. He ached for both of his kids, each in his or her own world of pain, pain that neither one should ever have had to face. This was the first time he had seen them be civil to each other in a month, he thought in amazement. He hoped that for both of their sakes that they would begin to mend their relationship, that they would once again become the close and loving siblings he knew that they still were.

“If I leave the two of you alone, I’m not going to have to make funeral arrangements for anyone am I?” He asked eying them with mock seriousness, brows furrowed, as he crossed his thick arms.

Belle rolled her eyes at her father. “Whatever, Dad,” she commented sarcastically, hand on her hips as she stood up. John watched as she tugged on the thin strap to her pink pajama tank top and sat down on the couch next to her brother.

“Brady?” John said, making sure that the inflection in his voice reminded his son of their conversation from earlier that afternoon.

Brady didn’t miss the meaning in his father’s question and sighed heavily. “Yeah, Dad. Don’t worry, all right? These pills are going to start kicking in and make me sleepy anyways. Just relax, ok?”

John nodded, satisfied that all hell was not about to break loose in his living room, and bounded back up the stairs to go back to bed.

Belle and Brady sat in silence for quite a while. She didn’t know where to start, which was a first with her brother. He’d always been her confidante, the one she could count on no matter what, and she needed to right the wrong she had done to him. Maybe that would help him to stop being angry with her. She sighed and looked at him, her china blue eyes deep with a mature sadness far beyond her years, and it broke Brady’s heart.

Damn, emotions like that didn’t belong in someone Belle’s age, he thought sadly. He looked up at the ceiling, trying to remember to not allow her to get too close to him. His willpower was waning, though. If Brady would have admitted it to himself, his struggle stemmed from the fact that people by nature need someone to share their emotions with, and to him, that someone had always been Belle. He had cut off that outlet for both he and his sister, and now they were both suffering because of it. However, he THOUGHT he was doing the right thing by chasing her away, or so he kept telling himself. He chose to ignore that unwelcome other voice that reminded him that perhaps his motives were more selfish than he’d care to admit.

“I’m sorry,” she said finally.

“Belle,” he said shortly, trying to maintain rough anger in his voice. “Go to bed. I’ll be fine in the morning.” He closed his eyes, silently dismissing her, and missing completely the torn hurt on his sister’s face.

She took a deep breath, gathering her courage, and, with a loud whack, smacked him hard on his bare arm. “OW!” He cried, his eyes snapping open. He rubbed his arm where she had smacked him and glared icy blue darts at her. “What the hell--”

She smiled sweetly at him, her long lashes whispering against her cheeks as she blinked. “Do I have your attention now, big brother?” She asked calmly, belying the nervous butterflies tumbling in her stomach. “I just have something to say, and then I’ll leave you be.”

She clasped her hands once again, a gesture that gave away her nervousness, and said, “I’m sorry, Brady. I’m sorry that I didn’t listen to you and run for help like you told me to when you were--were--” she stopped, unwanted tears choking her voice, and she bit her finger, unable to get her mouth to form the terrible words. He gazed at her with shock and shook his head.

“No, no, Belle. No!” He reached for her, but she swatted his hand away.

“Maybe if I’d have gotten help sooner, then you wouldn’t have gone through what you did. Or,” she added quietly, not daring to look at him, not wanting to see his intense gaze fastened on her. “Maybe I shouldn’t have gone there in the first place. If I hadn’t been there, then that guy would have left you alone. I know it. I just know it.” She stood up and walked so that her back faced him. She angrily swiped a runaway tear from her face and stared blindly out through the French doors onto the balcony.

Brady couldn’t believe what he was hearing. Belle actually thought she was responsible for what had happened that night? Oh, God. He had never in a million years seen that one coming. He knew his sister, and he would be willing to bet that she had figured her brother also blamed her for what happened, and that would, of course, explain his anger towards her. Brady, you just keep digging and digging deeper into that hole, don’t you, he asked himself angrily. You’ve turned into quite a guy. Yep. Quite a winner. He reached up and gently tugged on her pajama top. She turned and looked down at him, and he could see the telltale tear track on her cheek. He wordlessly patted the couch next to him, and she came and sat down next to him once again.

“Listen to me, Belle,” he said thickly, his eyes intense and full of emotion. “You did nothing wrong, ok?”

She stared at him, and he could see the glimmer of hope flash across her face that maybe her big brother still loved her after all. Brady’s mind was starting to cloud over from the medication, but he refused to give into it until he had set her straight. “I mean it,” he insisted, trying to think his way through the fog that was rolling in, diluting his thoughts. “You didn’t know what...he...was goin’.... do.... ah, Tink....” Brady’s eyes fluttered shut, and his face started to relax as the medicine began easing the pain in his back. “.... not your fault.... mine. All mine...all...........mine.....” His breathing soon became slow and even as he finally dropped off into a deep, peaceful sleep.

Belle got up and retrieved a blanket from the linen closet. She draped it over her brother’s sleeping form, and took his hand in hers. She sat on the floor and rested her head on his chest, still holding his hand. Brady, she thought sleepily, I think we’re going to need to have another little chat. She closed her eyes, still holding her brother’s hand, and slept her first peaceful night’s sleep since that night on the pier.

Chapter 15

Abby sighed before she knocked on the door to the Brady home. She tried to smooth some of the wrinkles out of her jeans capri pants that she had dug out of her suitcase this morning. Abby you are just a procrastinator, she thought with amusement. Admit it! She’d been back in Salem for two weeks, now, and she still was fishing her clothes out of her luggage every day. She just hated those LITTLE details that came with every day life. That, and, thanks to her fateful meeting with Brady last week at the hospital, she’d had much more on her mind than worrying about a few little wrinkles in her clothes. Damn that boy for having the most amazing, intense blue eyes she’d ever seen. She couldn’t get them out of her mind, couldn’t get HIM out of her mind. Ah, well, Abby, she scolded herself. Get over it. You can’t keep mooning over that jerk! He doesn’t deserve the amount of sleep that you’ve lost over him. She tucked a brown tendril of hair that had escaped her hair clip behind her ear and knocked on the door. As she waited for someone to answer, she noted with pleasure the beautiful July morning, with the bright sun warming all that it touched, and all of Hope’s flowers that lined the front walk cheerfully in full bloom, their many colored blossoms welcoming in their dazzling reds, blues, pinks, and purples. A slight breeze tickled her skin, releasing a few strands of hair to gently tease the nape of her neck. The door opened, and had the Brady’s not been so good about sending her family pictures in the three years the Devereaux’s were in Africa, she would never have recognized the stunningly handsome young man that now stood before her.

Shawn Douglas? Our little Shawn-D, she wondered? Gone was the awkward, gangly, long limbed 14 year old that stood barely as tall as she did. Shawn certainly had lost all of his childish looks, lost that soft roundness in the face that most children posses. In his place stood a tall, well-built, confident young man with an ecstatic grin on his face and a devilish twinkle in his deep brown eyes.

“Shawn-D?” Abby breathed, smiling like a Cheshire cat, before grabbing him in an enormous hug.

“Yeah--”Shawn croaked, his air cut off by his second cousin’s strong arms. He returned her hug and squeezed her tight.

Abby released her cousin and grinned up at him. “My goodness--what have they been feeding you? Last time I saw you, you were barely as tall as me!” She paused as she noticed the two small hoop earrings circling his left ear lobe. “Ah--so, you’ve got a bit of the Brady rebel in you after all! And here, we all thought you were this perfect angel!!” She reached up and flicked one of his earrings.

Shawn grinned at her, playfully smacked her hand away, and shook his head, releasing the dark wave of hair that tumbled into his eyes. He pushed the offending hair away and muttered, “Naw. Look, it’s not Shawn-D. Just Shawn. Come on in.” He stepped aside so that Abby could pass into the air conditioned, homey living room.

“Sure thing, SHAWN,” Abby chuckled and followed him into the house. Their house, too, was new since she had last lived in Salem. It was a wonderful house, full of warm, inviting colors, comfortable furniture, and pictures of the Brady family scattered about the living room. She took a seat on the couch and waited as Shawn shut the door. He turned to face her, smiling crookedly.

“So, how long have you been back? We had no idea you guys were going to be back quite so soon. Man, Mom and Dad are going to be sorry they decided to go shopping this afternoon!” Shawn perched on the end of an ottoman, rested his chin in his hands, and crossed his long, muscular, jeans-clad legs.

“Well,” Abby began, her warm cinnamon eyes smiling affectionately at her cousin. “I actually beat Mom and Dad back. They’re out west at the moment, having a second honeymoon on some ranch in Arizona.” She shrugged and grinned. “You know my parents. Always having to do things in the strangest way possible known to man. Like moving to Africa for three years. Then, going directly from Africa to a second honeymoon on a dude ranch. As for me, well, I have spent the past two weeks since I’ve been here getting over jet lag, registering for classes at Salem University, attending orientation, taking placement tests, getting a US drivers’ license, and... here’s the kicker.... volunteering at University Hospital.” She crossed her arms, sighing loudly, and slumped back into the couch, as if just reciting her long list of activities had been incredibly exhausting.

Shawn had to fight the urge to laugh at his cousin. He may not have seen Abby for three years, but he very vividly remembered her flair for drama. He nodded sympathetically, struggling to keep his expression serious, and quipped, “I see.” He thoughtfully rubbed his chin as he nodded. “What a tough schedule to just jump into. I feel your pain. Really. It’s tragic.”

Abby burst out laughing and grabbed a light blue throw pillow from the couch. She lobbed it expertly over her head and watched in delight as it smacked Shawn upside the head. “Smart Ass,” she muttered good naturedly, and Shawn smirked widely, very pleased with himself indeed, his brown eyes twinkling merrily.

He shrugged and picked up the pillow, tossing it back onto the couch. “Good to know I haven’t lost my touch there, cuz.” He said mildly, preparing to duck another potential onslaught of pillows for his comment. He was so glad to see Abby, who had always been like an admittedly occasionally annoying big sister to him. He had missed her terribly when she and her parents moved to Africa, and he was so relieved that she would once again be living in Salem.

Abby giggled and jumped off of the couch. She wrapped her arms around Shawn and planted two huge noisy kisses on his face--one on each cheek. He glared at her, wiping his face, and Abby serenely walked back to the couch and sat primly back down. She smiled benignly at him, her brown eyes sparkling with feigned innocence, and folded her hands demurely on her lap. “Ah, yes, Shawn-D,” She said, earning a slight frown from him. “And I’m SOOO glad to see I haven’t lost mine!” She blew a kiss at him, and Shawn laughed. She was such a pain, he thought fondly. And, damn, it felt so good to just laugh again. He’d spent so much energy this summer just worrying about Belle, and for just a few minutes Abby had managed to help him forget his troubles. Maybe, he thought with amusement, if it won’t give her a swelled head, someday I’ll tell her what she just did for me.

“Abby,” he asked, still smiling. “How the hell did you end up volunteering at the hospital almost as soon as you stepped back onto US soil?”

Abby blinked and sighed, and the good humor she felt slipped away, as she was once again reminded of her meeting with Brady. “I have one word. Gram.” She said simply, and Shawn nodded slowly in comprehension. Ah, yes, their Gram was a crafty one. He was secretly amused by his great grandmother’s antics, and couldn’t believe that she and the rest of her 80-something gardening club had taken off for the wilds of Alaska for a three-week cruise.

“How’d she manage that one?” He asked in amusement.

Abby shrugged. “Ever since your dad set her up with that laptop, she can’t be without her email. She’s been emailing me daily for the past year, and when she found out I was coming back to Salem, she used all of her wily persuasive tricks to get me to volunteer as soon as I got back into town.”

Shawn gave his cousin a puzzled frown. “Why would she want you to volunteer so badly right now at the hospital? Seems to me like you could just as easily do it after you’ve had time to settle in.” He rubbed his hand thoughtfully on his leg, trying to figure out his grandmother’s plan---and she ALWAYS had a plan.

“Shawn,” Abby said patiently, a slight smile curving her lips at Shawn’s innocent question. “Don’t tell me that you weren’t aware of the relationship that had developed between Brady and I.”

Shawn stared at her in utter confusion. “Of course. We all knew that you guys were, well, you know. Into each other. What does this have to do with Gram?”

It was Abby’s turn to be confused. “Shawn, think about it. Last November, Brady dumped me. Gave me no reason, just sent me this horrible email telling me that he never wanted to see me again. I was devastated, Shawn. It took me months just to be able to sleep again at night, to be able to stop crying over him. Dad was so pissed at him that he forbade anyone in the family to discuss Brady with me, him, or Mom.”

Realization dawned in Shawn’s chocolate eyes as Abby spoke. “Oh, man.” He said softly, and he ran a hand through his hair. “Wow. Have--have you seen or talked to Brady recently?” He asked quietly, dreading having to be the one to tell Abby what had happened to Brady. He was relieved when she nodded, blinking back the tears that threatened to spill over onto her cheeks. Shawn nodded and smiled warmly at her before continuing. “ Then you must know that he was shot in the back and paralyzed last November. So, all of this time you had no idea, did you? No idea what could be going on in his life to make him turn away from you?” He gazed compassionately at Abby as she shook her head, unable to speak past the lump that had formed in her throat. “I have to admit that I thought it was strange that he’s never mentioned you since the shooting. But, he’s had a lot on his plate to deal with. So, am I to guess that Gram had you volunteer at the hospital in the hopes that you two might run into each other?”

Abby swallowed the lump in her throat and nodded. “I just know that she knew exactly what had happened to him, and took matters into her own hands. She completely respected Dad’s wishes and didn’t discuss Brady with me. But, she knew that if I found out what had happened to him, that I would at least understand why he had been a first class ass to me.”

“Yeah, well, Brady has that “first class ass” act down to a fine science.” Shawn sneered, remembering how deeply hurt Belle had been the other day because of Brady’s nasty words. Abby blinked at her cousin, confused, not sure of where this was leading.

“Shawn,” she said slowly. “What’s going on, here? What are you talking about?”

Shawn took in a deep breath, and decided to tell Abby the whole story of that horrible night on the pier, the one that had changed all of their lives. “Well, you see,” he began, “It all happened one night not long before school let out for the summer.”

Abby sat in horrified silence as Shawn recounted for her, in great detail, that night that Brady had been assaulted, and Belle had been kidnapped. He couldn’t look at her as he spoke, couldn’t stand to see the heart broken pain and anger on her face. Pain and anger that was a mere shadow of how he felt.

“So, now, we’re trying to get Belle to come out of her shell, trying to get her to live life again.” Shawn finished sadly, his eyes deep with pain for his Isabella.

Abby smiled gently at her cousin and rubbed her forehead. “Oh, Shawn. Isn’t Belle a lucky girl to have you?”

Shawn looked at her in wide-eyed surprise, his handsome face reddening slightly. “What? What--oh. Is is that obvious?” He muttered, ducking his gaze from hers. He stared in fascination at the white-carpeted floor.

Abby nodded. “My dear cuz, it’s been obvious since the two of you were buddies in the sandbox. It’s only been a matter of time!”

Shawn grinned devilishly at her and shrugged. “I could say the same about you and--”

Abby held up her hand, her cinnamon eyes snapping. “Don’t even go there! We’re NOT the same. OK? Nothing like you and Belle! Nothing at all!! Brady’s--well--that’s a subject I just don’t want to discuss.”

Shawn had to clench his teeth to keep from smiling at his cousin. “Whatever,” he agreed mildly, and crossed his arms, failing miserably to keep an amused smirk off his face.

Abby rolled her eyes at Shawn. “Well, it seems to me that we have to come up with a plan.”

“A plan?” Shawn asked, intrigued, and yet a bit wary. He remembered very well how Abby’s “plans” continually got them all into trouble as kids. But, she always had had such good ideas....

Abby nodded. “We have the walking wounded Black siblings, Shawn-D, my dear!” She proclaimed, grinning as he frowned at hearing his old childhood nickname. “So, we have to get them out of their little bubbled world. Listen up, buddy. Here’s what we’re going to do.”

Shawn shook his head and leaned forward. Whatever Abby had up her sleeve, it was sure to be one hell of a ride.