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Up From the Ashes
[completed - PG13]

Chapter Eleven

When the phone rang, Elana almost tripped over Smeagol as she ran for the counter to put her groceries down before grabbing it. It was the old lady from the curio shop. She'd found a bed, dresser and wardrobe she believed were just what Elana was looking for.

"I took one look at it," she said, her voice thin and fervent, "and I saw a vision of butter yellow walls, and a carpet in deep greens and russets, and then I thought of you . . . are you still there?"

Elana had sunk to the floor with her back against the wall - she could not remember having given the lady so much detail. "I . . . yes, I'm here. Just surprised."

"Well, I hardly expected it myself when I walked into the man's barn. He had a number of other items that I bought for the store, but I left the bedroom furniture so that you could buy it from him directly, dear. I'll just give you his number - he lives out Merville way. I'm sure you know someone with a truck."

"Yes - thank you. I'll just get a pen."

When Elana finally hung up the phone she was shaking her head, partly in disbelief, partly in mystification. The lady had rambled on about the timelessness of oak, how furniture held a history that could be read by touch, how the wood glowed in the weak winter sun that filtered through the barn door, how it had whispered to her of happy times in the past and the hopes of more to come. How she knew when she saw it where it belonged. Her last words still echoed in Elana's mind. I see you and your little daughter lying against the pillows, laughing. "But . . . I don't have a daughter," Elana had responded. No, not yet. And she had rung off without saying another word, not even goodbye.

Had she confused her with someone else? That was hardly likely - she'd called her by name and described the colour of her bedroom walls. The old dear was definitely a little gaga.

"Cody, do you want to look at some furniture before we run by the craft fair to help Joy take down her booth?" called Elana into the living room as she picked up the phone again.

"Sure, mom," said Cody as he came into the kitchen, Smeagol perched on his shoulder.

While waiting for her call to be answered, Elana turned to Cody and said, "Could you put the groceries away for me . . . oh hello - is that Mr Armitage?"

Cody rifled through the bags, opening and closing cupboards and fridge as quietly as he could while Elana got directions.

"Okay, bud, let's skedaddle," she said as she placed the phone back on the receiver. She felt a quiver of anticipation run through her body. Not only was she tired of sleeping on an air mattress on the floor and living out of cardboard boxes, she was intrigued, despite her scepticism, by all that the old lady had told her. Could the furniture really talk to her? And, if so, what would it say?

"May I have a yoghurt?" Cody looked up at her pleadingly.

"I don't want you eating yoghurt in the car - have a banana."

"Aw mom!"

"Remember what happened last time when I had to put the brakes on suddenly?"

"A cookie?"

"Not till after supper."

"Cheese?"

"If you're quick. I want to leave right now."

Cody hurriedly cut a couple of slices of cheddar while Elana got on her jacket. They hopped into the car and did up their seat belts then, as she started the engine and put the car into gear Cody handed her a piece. "This one's for you."

"Thanks, hon! Making sure your mom doesn't starve?"

He grinned and bit into his slice. As they drove past the stables Elana didn't miss how he craned his neck the whole way by. Was he looking at the horses or looking for someone in particular? She didn't want to ask him, but felt a tightening in her heart.

At Headquarters Road they turned left, instead of right as they usually did, and then took the next left. The road wound through farmland and crossed over the Tsolum River, the grey water spreading widely over a rocky bed. After a sharp bend, Elana started checking the addresses and then turned up a narrow driveway that led to an old farmhouse. A man was waiting on the front porch.

"It's just down in the barn," he called out as he walked over to meet them.

He chatted amiably as he led the way behind the house and past the chicken run. "The stuff was my sister's, but she's moved into a small apartment and can't keep it. She's had it for about fifteen years - bought it at an auction. I don't know much about antiques and things, but it's old and a little beat up. The lady from the store told me it was just what you're looking for."

"I hope so," said Elana, smiling.

"I hope so too," said Mr Armitage. "I need to put my tractor away for the winter. If you don't take it I'll just break it up for firewood." He threw open the barn doors. "Light's not much good in here, but . . ."

Elana slowly walked up to the furniture. The oak was warm and golden, and even through the dust and smatterings of straw and the dim light, it glowed. There was a sleigh bed, dismantled, a tallboy, and a wardrobe with a mirror that was spotted with age. String was tied through the holes in one of the drawers in place of handles, and the nicks and dents of time were plainly visible in the wood. She opened the wardrobe and metal hangers rattled, light filtered through from a crack in the backing, the door hung a little crooked on its hinges.

"You were right - no fur coats," said Cody.

The drawer underneath pulled out part way unevenly and then stuck. Elana had to jiggle it to push it back in again. She ran her hand up the smooth curves of the side, over the simple carving that arched above the mirror - twisted vines and . . . she looked closer. In the dimness she could just make out a bird in flight. The headboard had a similar design, though a portion of it was completely missing; the footboard and tallboy only had a knot of leaves.

"It's sorta worse for wear," the man said apologetically.

"No," said Elana. "It's incredible. It's beautiful. More than I ever imagined." And it did speak to her, though not in words. It just made her feel comforted, somehow, and it seemed right that it should be sitting in the barn waiting only for her.

"The whole side of the dresser is warped," he said, "and none of the drawers run smooth, but my sister liked it."

"Can I give you a check?" asked Elana. "Or should I come by later with cash? I'll try to get a friend with a truck to pick the furniture up as soon as I can. Please don't sell it to anyone else."

"Just as long as I can get my tractor in here by next weekend," he said with a laugh.

Elana drove back down the driveway feeling elated and Cody chattered happily - the furniture already gone from his mind, he talked about the chickens and the ducks, and the goat that had come up to him in the yard and nudged its stubby little horns against his hip.

~ * ~

As she walked through the pottery booth, Elana sighed. She returned to Joy who was folding up shawls and hangings and putting them into boxes.

"It's gone."

"What's gone?" asked Joy as she closed the box.

Elana sat on the floor and leaned against the hallstand. "The pottery bowl. It was so beautiful. But I couldn't afford it. I thought if I waited till the last day I could ask if the potter would give me a deal on it."

"Why didn't you tell me? I'm sure I could have traded something for it."

"Then I would just owe you, but thanks, sweetie." Elana leaned her head back and closed her eyes. "Did you see it? It was a shallow bowl - very fine - done in a dark green glaze with pink crackling, and flashes of gold and charcoal. I loved the feel of it - the balance - it was serene." She heard steps and opened her eyes to see Darien Stewart looking at her thoughtfully. She jumped up and began folding the screens. What is his problem?

Carl gave Joy a hug. "We're here to help," he said. "Can't believe it, but I've roped Darien in."

"I've got my truck," said Darien. "What do you want to load first?"

Joy began organising the men while Elana looked around for Cody - but he'd already noticed Mr Stewart and had run over to talk to him. Elana hefted a box up and headed for the door.

~ * ~

Dennis always seemed to be available when Elana needed him. On Monday he'd gone to the farm and picked up her furniture while she'd driven into Courtenay to the mattress shop to buy a new mattress for her bed. It was a double bed, but Elana had no need for anything as big as queen size anyway. She had the mattress delivered and that night everything was set up in her room. All that was missing was the dark green and russet carpet - but it existed in her imagination and, who knows, if she had a good season the coming year, it could eventually become a reality too.

She'd cleaned the old oak and oiled it. Her room still smelled of oranges. Her clothes were finally out of boxes and folded in the drawers and hanging in the wardrobe. It was a completely different feeling to have big, sturdy furniture in her room and everything squared away. She lay on her faded yellow quilt and rubbed her hand along the wood of the headboard, ran her fingers over the carving. Half of the twining vine was gone, and one of the bird's wings, but it still flew. Elana smiled. She leaned back and relished at the comfort of a real bed again after all those months.

Cody came running in and jumped up beside her. He began to bounce.

"Hey, not so wild, tiger. I don't want the bed to break when I just got it."

"Can I sleep here with you tonight?"

"Sure thing, as long as you promise not to be a wiggle worm."

He tried to be very still. "Would you read to me?"

"How about you go wash up, get into your jammies, and choose a book?"

"Yes!" he cried and ran off to get ready for bed.

Elana plumped up her pillows and put one behind her back. As she waited for Cody, fleetingly she wondered about the vision of the little girl the old woman had seen on the bed with her. Was her hair straight, or curly? Did she have laughing eyes? What was her name? And then she shook her head at herself for being so silly as to take something like that seriously. There was just Cody and herself, and she was completely happy with it that way. When he arrived with the book she held out her arms to him and he snuggled up next to her. She pulled the quilt up high around them both and then opened the book and began to read.

~ * ~

"Thanks for helping out yesterday, old man," said Carl.

"You've already thanked me," said Darien as he sat at his desk. "What's really on your mind?"

Carl picked up a pen and twirled it around. "So, what do you think of Joy now that you've met her a couple of times?"

"I told you last Friday that she's very beautiful."

"But I'm asking about what you think of her, not your impression of what she looks like."

"It's hard to judge someone on such a short acquaintance," said Darien carefully. "I think she's talented - her weaving is well crafted and she's got a good colour sense. Look - I bought a blanket." He pointed to the armchair in the corner of his study where a thick, multi-coloured blanket was lying.

Carl smiled. "She's amazing isn't she?" He threw the pen down on the desk, looking more relaxed. "She worked so hard for the fair, and her stuff was all so beautiful. It sold really well too - she had barely anything left to pack up and she's got lots of orders she has to complete before Christmas."

"I'm happy for her," said Darien, shuffling some pages on his desk.

"Why do I still get the sense that you aren't telling me exactly what you think?"

"Carl, you are transparent. You've gone over the deep end. I just think you should step a couple paces back and cool it for a bit."

"What are you talking about? I love her, man!"

"That much is obvious. But here's the kicker - does she love you?"

"What are you saying? Of course she does. How could you . . . insinuate?"

"I'm not insinuating anything. You asked for my opinion and I tried not to give it, but you insisted. The truth is I've met Joy twice - she's talented, she's attractive, she's quiet and sweet, but I haven't seen anything to indicate that she likes you better than anyone else. She smiled at me just as much as she smiled at you. She was friendly to Lina, of all people. She was nice to her customers, the doorman, some guy on the street who bumped into her accidentally. You, on the other hand, barely pay attention to anyone else but her. I can't even have an intelligent conversation with you anymore."

Carl picked up a book and banged it down on the desk. "So - now you're saying that I'm a fool? That she's just stringing me along for my money?"

"I didn't say that - you did."

"Well, actually Lina did," said Carl, kicking the leg of the desk. "But it's what you're thinking."

"What I'm thinking and what I'm saying is the same thing. You should back off. Take a breath. Change your perspective. You're obsessing and you can't think clearly."

"I don't think you know what you're talking about!" yelled Carl, and he pulled the door open with a jerk. He stood in the doorway for a minute and looked like he was going to say something else, but then he just strode through and slammed the door behind him.

All the pictures on the wall rattled. Darien got up to straighten a few and then sat down at his desk again. Wiggled the mouse to wake his computer. His story was there on the screen and he reread the last couple of paragraphs to try to get back into the feel of the scene he was writing. But thoughts kept obtruding.

He stood up and walked around the room, tried to calm his ideas, channel them. But his mind kept returning to Carl. He didn't want Carl hurt - the guy was just too vulnerable. And Joy - well, she was difficult to read. Behind her open appearance he sensed hidden reserve. As if you could get only so close and no further, and this is what worried him where Carl was concerned. When Carl fell in love he held nothing back. He'd seen Carl in love before and he'd been there to pick up the pieces afterward - when Carl had been tossed aside. He didn't want to have to do it again - see the pain in his friend's eyes that could almost cut you it was so sharp. He didn't want Carl to have to experience that bitter, yawning emptiness - the misery - the sorrow.

He didn't know if he was ready to believe in Joy - but dammit, he hadn't wanted to tell Carl yet. It was too soon - Carl was moving too quickly. And now he'd alienated him. It didn't help that Lina had been saying baseless, vindictive things about the girl. Not for a minute did he think that Joy was after Carl's money.

And what worried him more than anything else was that Carl was obsessed and might act without thinking. Darien understood obsession - but he also had acres of self control. He could stop himself before he did something totally stupid. Could Carl?

Darien's thoughts slid past Carl to his own obsession. Back to the craft fair the day before. She'd been there, lying against that antique furniture - her eyes closed - looking so much like Lanea that Darien had begun to wonder whether he was finally losing his grip on where reality ended and fantasy began, or was it where fantasy ended and reality began? Her voice had been so wistful - so full of longing. And she'd described something that he knew very well.

He walked over to a table by the window that looked out over the trees that bounded his property, and through those trees to the greenhouses. On that table a bowl was placed. He picked it up and weighed it in his hands - it was light, fine, balanced: serene. That was a good word for it - she'd described it perfectly. His hand ran over the soft inward curve of the bowl, felt the smoothness of the green, the rough pink crackling, the satin feel of the gold, and the dusty texture of the drifts of charcoal. Whose bowl was it? Where did it really belong? He gently put it back and then seated himself in front of the computer again. He was ready. Words were piling up against each other, pushing, fighting for escape. Wanting to be placed just so - where they echoed off one another and resonated with story.

Chapter Twelve

"I've got a favour to ask you, Elana."

Joy sounded like something was troubling her. Elana pulled her gloves off and set them on the potting bench. "What's up?"

"Well . . . would you mind very much going to the theatre with Carl and me and a few friends?"

Elana understood Joy's tentative attitude now. Darien Stewart must be one of the friends she was referring to. "You want me to spend an evening with that . . . that stuck up prig?"

"Elana . . . I know you're not crazy about him, but there will be lots of other people and it's very important to Carl - he wants to bring everybody together to get to know each other. It's awkward for him that his friends don't know me or the people I am close to. He's sure that if Lina and Darien were to get to know us better they wouldn't have any reservations . . ."

"Hold it," Elana cut in. "Reservations? You mean they actually have something against you? Impossible! You are the sweetest, kindest person in the world. How dare they take their bad opinion of me and extend it to you!"

"No - it's not that. Really . . . I don't think any of them has a bad opinion of you, or of me. Carl just said . . . he just said that they don't have any idea what we are about. How can they have any opinion if they don't know us? He wants them to get to know us - me, you, Chandra - and I'm counting on you to say you'll come. I just know that if you get to know them you'll like them too. Remember how helpful Darien was with packing up my booth at the fair? And Lina - I know you two have had run-ins - this would be a good opportunity to clear up the misunderstanding between you. And you like Justie and Colin - they'd be coming too."

"Oh Joy - next thing you'll say that Lina is nice too and you know she is such a bag. I'm sorry - she is Carl's sister but I can't help telling the truth." She glanced at Joy who had slumped onto a stool and was looking completely miserable. "Okay - I'll come for you, and I'll try not to set Lina off, but don't expect me to be friendly with her or Darien - I don't think I could manage more than politeness."

"That's all I ask," said Joy, brightening. "Oh, and Cody is invited too. I can't wait to tell Carl - he'll be so relieved."

"So when is this big night, and what're we going to see?"

"It's next Saturday night. Carl's goddaughter Monica is playing Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady. It's at the Sid Williams Theatre - you know - at Fifth St and Cliffe. And we're all going to dinner at The Old House before the performance."

When Elana got back to work, she dipped cuttings into rooting hormones and jammed them into the flats in front of her as if each little twig was Lina or Darien. After snapping two of them in half she stopped her mindless planting and took a deep breath to calm herself. What had Darien and Lina been saying to Carl about them? She wouldn't put it past either of them to try and break Carl and Joy up. Lina was probably having conniptions at the fact that her brother's girlfriend was just a cashier at Superstore and not some society girl. And she already knew Darien's opinion of people who lived in run-down little houses. Well, she was going to the dinner and the play and she was going to show them that you couldn't judge people by their houses, or cars, or bank balances. She and Chandra and Joy were going to look so elegant they'd be blown away. She continued planting as she began visualising the dresses the three of them would have to start sewing right away if they were going to make any impression on those two snobs at all.

~ * ~

"I don't know why you invited all those people, Carl," said Lina as she took one last look at her hair in the mirror. "Your little girlfriend is one thing, but to spend the evening in the company of the Jam Lady is just too much. "

"I really like Elana," said Justie, "and I see nothing wrong with the fact that she makes jam and sells it. It's good jam."

"That girl has a mouth on her," said Lina. "She just sucks up to you to get free riding lessons for her snotty little kid."

"Lina . . ." said Carl threateningly.

"It's okay Carl," said Justie. "I know Lina's just jealous."

"Jealous? Of her? Why? That's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard."

"Because Darien doesn't look at you the way he looks at her," said Justie with a smirk.

"That's absurd," said Lina with a dismissive toss of her head. But when Darien came down the stairs she went up to him and leaned seductively in a way that showed her endowments to full advantage. "Your sister's being mean to me."

"I'm sure you deserved whatever Justie said," he responded almost absently as he looked over to Carl. "I'm sorry I made you wait. You might as well go and pick up Joy and her friends now - we'll meet you there."

"Okay," he said, a little nervously, then he looked over at his sister. "And you behave - this is important to me."

After Carl had gone, Lina picked up her jacket and gave Darien a beseeching look. "Help me into this?"

"You can't put on your own jacket?" asked Justie as she watched the struggle Lina was having getting it on even with Darien's help. "Should have bought one that fit you."

"It was designed for me," said Lina, pulling the skin-tight sleeves down to her wrists.

"When you were six?" asked Justie.

"What is wrong with you two?" asked Darien. "C'mon, stop sniping at each other and let's get going. Carl's a nervous wreck as it is - he'll be freaking out if we're late."

"She said something really nasty about Elana and Cody - I was just paying her back."

"I don't know why everyone is so ga-ga over them," said Lina. "Elaine is always rude to me and I don't see why she expects free lessons for her kid."

"Her name is Elana," said Darien as he opened the door. "Try to get it right for once."

"And Cody's lessons aren't free - Elana just pays less because he helps me in the barn. It was my idea," said Justie as she buttoned her coat.

"Well, don't expect me to be drooling all over them like the rest of you," said Lina. "And I think Darien's got more sense than that too." She glanced up at him provocatively, hoping that he would agree with her, but Darien was fumbling in his pocket for his keys, apparently not paying the slightest attention to anything she had just said.

~ * ~

"I'm still blown away by you insisting we get all swanked up," said Chandra as she fastened a silver locket around Elana's neck. "But I sure am glad you did. We are three gorgeous broads! Carl won't know what hit him when he sees Joy."

Elana was wondering if she had been in her right mind. When she looked in the mirror it was like she was looking at a stranger, with her hair swept up, Joy's diamond studs in her ears, and make up. She hadn't worn a dress in such a long time that she felt exposed. It was a very classic cut, sleeveless, with cross over straps in the back and a skirt that swirled just below her kneecaps. The ankle strap shoes borrowed from Chandra accentuated the shape of her legs. She felt a little more at ease when she put her jacket on.

The doorbell rang and Chandra ran to get it. "Get ready for your big entrance, Joy," she cried. But when she opened the door she suddenly went stock-still - whatever smart comment she had been about to make to Carl died on her lips.

"The least you could do is invite me in," said Colin.

"I thought . . . we were meeting at the restaurant."

"You look beautiful," he said, lounging against the doorframe.

"Aw . . . sheesh . . . so do you."

"I still don't get to come in? Soon you'll be heating the whole outdoors."

"Get in here," said Chandra, finally regaining her equilibrium. "And stop being a goof."

Colin came in and looked over to Elana. "Wow! You look great too."

"Thanks."

"I'm almost afraid to see Joy, or I'll be tempted to drive her as well and Carl will be left with no one."

"You're taking Elana too? And I thought it was me that you loved!" Chandra put her hand on her hip and pouted expressively.

"It is," said Colin blandly, "but we'll need Cody and Elana as chaperones. I couldn't trust myself alone with you."

"Smart-ass!" said Chandra, giving him a playful shove. "Wait till you see Cody - he looks like such a little gentleman - he's even got a tie."

Cody came into the room tugging at the thing. "Do I have to wear it? I can't breathe."

"It's all part of becoming a man," said Colin, squatting down to adjust it for him. "There you go - girls can't put them on right."

Just then three things happened at once: Joy entered the room, Colin emitted a low whistle, and the doorbell rang.

"Right on cue," said Chandra as she opened the door for Carl.

He was looking a little anxious but his face changed upon seeing Joy. She looked like a Dresden doll in powder blue, with silver icicles hanging from her ears and dangling across the milky skin below her throat.

"Time for us to leave," whispered Colin, and he shooed everybody else out of the house.

"I'm beginning to wish I didn't invite all those people," said Carl. He came forward and took her in his arms, his eyes not leaving her face. "I don't see how anyone could possibly not love you."

"Don't worry - tonight will go well," said Joy.

"So far it's off to a great start," said Carl, completely forgetting his sister's snide remarks. The only thing of importance to him now was Joy. He leaned his head down and kissed her, gently at first but then with more feeling as she put her arms around his neck and responded.

"We'd better go," she said when she finally pulled her head away. "They'll be wondering where we are."

"Let them wait," he said and he kissed her again.

~ * ~

The Old House was, just as it sounded, a large old house - down by the Courtenay River - that had been converted into a restaurant. It was set in a beautiful garden, but the middle of December was not the time to be wandering about the premises looking at plants, so Elana only got a brief view as Colin escorted them into the building. They were led to their table in a private enclave and were taking their coats off when Darien arrived with Lina and Justie.

"Where's Carl?" asked Lina, looking around.

"They'll be here soon," said Chandra, "Carl just arrived to pick Joy up when we left."

"I'd say they'll be a little while yet," said Colin, and Chandra slapped his arm playfully.

They all chose seats, Justie sitting between Elana and Cody, and Lina sliding in next to Darien, across from them. Chandra took the seat next to her and Colin sat at the end of the table, with Chandra on his left and Cody on his right. It didn't take long for Lina to realise that though she was beside Darien, his gaze was directed across the table to where the Jam Girl sat with the candlelight casting a warm glow on her face. Lina contented herself in thinking that it threw deep shadows under her eyes, but as a precaution she shuffled her chair over, closer to Darien, and whispered in his ear to get his attention.

Darien was caught by the curl that had escaped above Elana's ear to fall upon her cheek, the glint of the diamond stud, the honey colour of her throat. This wasn't the dirt streaked Elana in old jeans or the tangle haired Lanea that crept through bushes. This was someone else, and he almost hadn't recognised her as he'd come up the stairs and seen her standing there beside the table in her dark green dress, half leaning towards Cody, the silky fabric softly draping itself over her body.

Lina whispered in his ear again, a little louder this time, and scowled as Justie's smirk reached her from the other side of the table.

"Darien, I'm talking to you," she finally said in exasperation.

He started and turned to her. "Sorry - I was thinking of something else - I didn't hear you."

"That's okay, darling," she said, casting her eyes across the table to see if Elana was watching. "You must be so preoccupied with business details. It's hardly surprising when you have so many responsibilities with managing the stables and all your other properties."

"I was actually thinking of something quite different," he said.

"What wine do you want tonight?"

"Pick whatever you like."

"But I want to be sure it's something you like too."

"I'm not having wine tonight - why don't you ask the others so you can order a wine that everybody wants?"

"Not having wine? Don't be so silly." She turned her head from him and looked past Chandra to Colin. "Darien says he's not drinking - you'll have some wine with me, surely."

Colin addressed the whole table. "What would everybody like? Red or white?"

Lina whispered in Darien's ear again. "Now that's done it. They'll probably choose some crass stuff to go with their crass tastes."

Darien turned to her and said in an undervoice, "I only see one person at this table who is anything approaching crass," then he turned away again and raised his hand to catch the waitress' attention.

Lina stared at Elana and then at Chandra wondering which one of the two he had meant, and then she looked at the little boy, who surprisingly was dressed quite presentably for once. It wasn't him, or Justie, or Colin. She hoped it was Elana and that that was the reason Darien's eyes kept drifting across the table.

Carl and Joy arrived just as the drinks were being ordered. Carl apologised for being late as he pulled out Joy's chair for her and then took his own seat, but his apology did not seem sincere. His eyes were sparkling and he looked anything but sorry for having kept anybody waiting.

~ * ~

Aside from the fact that Elana had been unnerved by the amount of times she'd caught Darien's eyes on her, she'd enjoyed her dinner. She didn't mind the fact that the chair beside her was empty - she had Justie on the other side to talk to. Lina was far enough away that she never had to say anything to her, and Darien was either talking to his girlfriend, who was hanging on his arm most of the time, or to Joy who was sitting on his other side. Colin and Chandra were keeping their end of the table in giggles, so Cody was well entertained, and the food had been delicious. They did not sit long over the meal because there was the play to go to.

When they returned to the parking lot and got into the cars, Elana was surprised to find herself alone in the front seat of Darien's car with Darien Stewart himself. The other two vehicles had driven off and no one was standing around.

"Where's Lina?" she asked a he turned his key in the ignition.

"I think she and Justie went with Carl and Joy."

"Oh."

Darien backed out of the parking stall and drove up to the road. "Did you enjoy dinner?"

"Yes," she said, looking at the approaching headlights for a space he could pull into. 'He must like this just as much as I do,' she thought. And it seemed that she was correct in that assumption because nothing more was said in the few minutes it took to drive along Cliffe Avenue to the Sid Williams Theatre. Elana trained her eyes to the window, pretending to be interested in the businesses that they passed. When they parked Darien was out of the car and opening her door before she realised it. She got out and found herself surprisingly close to him. A light tang of ginger trailed on the cool night air. His cheek - so close to her eyes - was smooth, his sideburn perfectly trimmed. She'd never noticed the shape of his ear before. She caught her breath as he took her arm and escorted her to the stairs. The others had all gathered there. Justie grinned as they walked up and Lina darted forward.

"Darien darling," she cried, "I don't know what happened! I'm so sorry that I left you all alone!" She clung to his other arm.

"As you can see I wasn't alone," he said dryly.

Elana slipped her arm from his light grasp and joined Cody. She took a deep breath. The experience had been just too weird. She wasn't going to let something like that happen again.

The play was marvellous. All thoughts of such unimportant people as Darien and Lina flew from Elana's head. She was mesmerized by the actors upon the stage. For a young theatre company their performance was very compelling. Monica caught the character of Eliza perfectly: she was bold, forthright, and saucy, and she sang beautifully. After the curtain calls and standing ovations, Carl dragged everyone backstage to meet his goddaughter and present her with roses. Lina showered her with accolades, but Elana could see that Monica preferred Justie's quiet praise.

"Should we all go for coffee?" asked Carl as they left Monica to get out of her costume and makeup.

"I'm calling it a night," said Darien. "But thanks. The play was wonderful and I even think you succeeded in your objective for the evening."

"Thanks," said Carl, giving him a hug. "That means a lot to me."

"I'll talk to you later. Who is coming with me?"

Justie, who had been talking to Elana and Cody, answered him. "Could we give these two a ride home?"

"And of course I'm coming with you too," said Lina, rubbing his arm.

"Yes, your car is parked at my place, isn't it?"

Elana thought it was an odd remark to make to his girlfriend, but she soon dismissed it as she climbed into the back of his car with Cody and Justie. On the ride home Justie sang I Could Have Danced all Night the whole way, and the others joined in for the chorus, even Cody and Darien.

As she got into bed later, the song was still running through her head. Elana snuggled under her covers and went to sleep filled with a warm comfortable feeling.

~ * ~

Darien sat at his computer. It was late. Lina had come in instead of just driving straight home and it had been an hour before she had taken the hint and gone. Justie was going to hear about it in the morning, leaving for bed so quickly like that and eliminating his means of escape. He had wanted nothing more than to get back to his computer and write, ever since the play had ended. And now all he could do was sit and stare at the screen.

What he had said to Carl was true. For the first time he noticed that light that shone in Joy's eyes when she looked at his friend. And talking to her he had discovered that she was more than just a pretty face. It was possible he was wrong about her after all - that there was no need to worry - that she did care but was cautious not to let it show too much. Anyway, it was evident from the way Carl was behaving that there was no going back for him, so there was nothing to do but allow him his head and hope for the best.

And his own obsession - was he any further ahead in solving it? He worried that Elana was beginning to mean more to him than just a muse. Tonight he'd listened to her conversation, watched her smile, driven with her, stood close enough to smell her subtle fragrance, taken her arm, and even heard her sing in the car on the way home. The green of her dress had made her hazel eyes darker - more vivid. And she had looked . . . very nice in it. He leaned back and thought about when they had been alone together in the car. A pity the drive wasn't longer. No - maybe it was a good thing the drive wasn't longer. They hadn't talked - just her presence had been enough for him, and the soft guitar music on his stereo. It would be better if he didn't think about it. Having her as a muse was one thing. Anything else was . . . improbable.

He clicked his mouse on his media player - put on Nick Drake's "Northern Sky" - sat back again and let the music flow. It was the same song that had been playing in the car. He was crazy to sit there and listen to it and think of her. Foolish. Irresponsible. Irrational. But when it ended he played it again, and again, and again. And his fingers didn't touch the keyboard at all.

Chapter Thirteen

"So, what time did you get in last night?" Elana looked pointedly at Chandra as she came into the kitchen.

"I didn't know you were my mother," said Chandra with a wink, then she twirled around the room before sitting at the table.

"So you had a good time, I take it."

"They don't call the guy Fox for nothing," Chandra smiled mischievously.

"I guess I'd better not ask any more questions. Looks like we're reaching the point of too much information."

"I wish!" Chandra checked the teapot and then got up to get a cup from the cupboard. "We went to that new little coffee place on Fifth. After we closed it down he drove me home."

"And you shook hands on the doorstep, I suppose?" Elana smirked.

"Something like that," said Chandra.

"If that's all that happened why are you floating on air this morning?"

"He's got a great handshake?"

"You're dying to tell me what really happened."

"Let's just say I'll be seeing him again soon."

"How soon?" asked Elana, laughing at the smug look on her friend's face.

Chandra checked her watch. "In about six and a half hours."

"Man's a fast worker!"

"What d'ya mean? It's taken him over two months to ask me out!"

"Yeah, but now that he knows what he wants he's not wasting any time."

Chandra took a sip of her tea and looked at Elana speculatively. "Now we just gotta find you a man."

"You and Joy took all the good ones," Elana said flippantly. "Anyway, I don't have time for anything like that right now."

"We took all the good ones? How can you say that when there's a hunk like Darien Stewart practically on your doorstep?"

"That's completely ridiculous!" Elana looked at Chandra like there was something wrong with her. "For one thing, he's not available, and even more to the point, we can't stand each other."

"Then why was he having trouble keeping his eyes off you last night?"

"He was probably totally amazed that I wasn't wearing some skanky outfit."

"No," giggled Chandra. "Lina had that one covered - or should I say uncovered? She was almost falling out of her designer dress - if you could call what she was wearing a dress."

~ * ~

"The least you could have done was take advantage of the situation after I went to so much effort to provide it for you," Justie said, flipping the eggs over in the pan.

"What are you talking about?" Darien popped four slices of bread in the toaster and then turned back to his sister.

"Do you think it was an accident that you and Elana were alone together for the drive to the Sid?"

Darien drummed his fingers on the counter. When Justie was about ready to tell him that he was no Matt Cameron, he finally spoke. "I don't need you to set things up for me."

"Don't you? You aren't doing very well on your own, if you don't mind my saying so."

"The thing you fail to grasp," said Darien, speaking slowly and with emphasis, "is that I'm not trying to do anything."

"No," said Justie, sliding the eggs onto their plates. "That is painfully obvious. What's wrong with you?"

"I'm not interested in Elana."

"Tell me another one."

"Look . . ." Darien was interrupted by the toast popping. When he had buttered it and set it on the table he took a seat beside his sister and continued. "It's not that simple. Can we talk about something else?"

"I guess we can, but you are very maddening, you know."

"I know." He smiled at her. "Thanks for the reprieve from Lina. It was a nice drive."

"Even though you wasted it!"

Darien chose to ignore her remark. That particular subject was closed. "I wasn't too crazy about what you did to me later in the evening, though."

Justie had the grace to look guilty. "Oh?"

"It took me an hour to get rid of Lina last night, and there were things I would rather have been doing."

"Just thought I'd impress on you what you're in danger of getting stuck with if you don't take any action."

Darien shuddered. "It's not gonna happen, Justie. Give me a little more credit than that."

"That's not what Lina thinks."

Darien shrugged his shoulders and set about eating his eggs.

~ * ~

"Mom! Mom! We gotta get going. I can't be late for my last game before Christmas."

"Don't worry, honey. We'll be there on time. Do you have your sports bag and water bottle? I just have to get my shoes on."

"Tell your hot coach not to worry - I'll be there at game time," called Chandra from the hall.

"Why should he care?" asked Cody as they ran out the door.

"He likes her," said Elana.

"Oh, I knew that." Cody threw his stuff into the backseat and then buckled up. "But this is a game. What he really cares about is if I get there on time."

"I'll get you there, bucko," Elana said, grinning to herself.

When they got to the field, Colin looked at them and then his eyes drifted off behind them.

"She said not to worry - she'll be here by game time." Elana winked.

Cody rolled his eyes at his coach and heaved a big sigh.

"I have no idea what you are talking about," Colin said to Elana and then he ran onto the field with Cody to do the pre-game drill.

Elana shook her head, her eyes alight with laughter, and went over to talk to one of the other mothers while the kids did their warm ups.

Chandra brought Sam with her when she came. Cody waved at them from the centre of the field where he was practicing shots on goal, but Colin came running off the field. He said "Hi" to Sam and then took Chandra's hand and pulled her a little way from the rest. Elana noticed him tuck Chandra's hair behind her ear and then lean in and kiss her on the cheek. His arm slid around her back and he stood close, talking, until the head coach ran over and yelled, "C'mon, lover boy! The game's about to begin." All the boys on the field were giggling.

When Chandra rejoined Elana she gave her a quelling stare, but it only made Elana laugh harder.

"What? What?"

"You shouldn't be distracting the coaches, Chandra. It's the game that's important, you know."

"I can't help it if I'm irresistible," said Chandra, blowing on her fingernails and rubbing them on her jacket.

The whistle blew and the game started. One of the forwards passed the ball back to Cody at mid and he took it up the side and then crossed it. Elana was watching the play intently when someone tapped her on the shoulder and said, "Hi." She looked around and there was Justie smiling at her, and behind Justie was Darien who smiled and then gazed fixedly out upon the field.

"Cody told us it was his last game before the holidays so we had to come and see it," Justie said. "Which is his team?"

"The ones in blue," said Darien before Elana could answer.

"That's right," Elana said. "He's up over there, playing left mid."

"I see him," said Justie, and then she moved over behind Elana as if wanting to get a better look, ending up on her other side and leaving Elana between herself and Darien. Her new position brought her closer to Chandra and Sam and she began talking to them.

Elana was left wondering how she could politely move away. The last thing she wanted to do was watch Cody's soccer game in the company of her neighbour. She turned her head resolutely towards the play where a goal attempt was being made and wished that the kids would maintain the play in that end of the field if only to keep Darien out of her sights. Luckily he was silent so far, and as Cody stood on the sidelines preparing for a throw in she hoped he remained that way. She saw no reason why he should want to talk to her anyway.

"He's got a good strong throw."

Elana nodded but said nothing and shifted over to her right. Chandra and Justie had moved further up the sidelines, deserting her. She saw no real reason why she felt compelled to stay where she was, but somehow she couldn't move away. The opposition now had the ball and was carrying it across the centre line and Elana had to turn to watch as Cody ran hard into a defensive position. He tackled a forward for the ball and managed to kick it off to the side. She was cheering his play when she noticed Darien clapping and then giving him a thumbs up signal, which Cody returned.

The play resumed and Cody intercepted the throw in, dekeing around two players before he passed the ball up the side and then ran forward to be in line to receive it again.

"He just doesn't give up," said Darien appreciatively. "And he makes things happen. Look how he just set up that shot."

Elana flashed him a smile. She couldn't help but feel warmed by praise for her child. "He loves being out there and getting in all the action."

"He's got your determination."

'My determination?' Elana stared at Darien. How could he presume to know anything about her? She turned her head back to the game in time to see an excellent save by the opposing goalie, and did her best until half time to ignore the fact that Darien Stewart was anywhere close to her. She became completely involved in the game, jumping up and down and yelling encouragement. When the whistle blew and Cody came running off the field to her, she grabbed him in her arms and said, "You are totally awesome!"

"Thanks mom!" Cody looked around and then said, "Where's Mr Stewart? I thought he was with you."

"He wasn't with me - he was just standing close to where I was."

Cody rolled his eyes and then pointed off towards the concession stand. "There he is."

"I think you're right. He's probably getting coffee for him and Justie. Do you want anything? Are you cold?"

"I'm so hot! When we're short subs like this and I'm playing all the time it's impossible to get cold."

"Well you're lucky then because I think my toes are going to fall off. It's colder than I thought it would be - I should have worn a scarf. Is my nose all red?"

Cody scrunched up his eyes as he examined her face. "Like Rudolph's."

"Thanks, bud! That's just what I needed to hear."

"I'm going to go and get some oranges before they're all gone," said Cody, running over to where his team mates were jostling each other around a bucket.

As Elana stood and watched him, a smile spread over her face. He was growing so much and becoming so confident and independent. Joining the soccer team had been one of the best things for him and, she had to admit, the riding lessons too. He was developing into a strong, capable, and surprisingly athletic boy.

~ * ~

Darien hesitated as he approached Elana, not wanting to disturb her. The expression on her face as she watched her son almost took his breath away. Her eyes were suffused with light and the warmth of it seemed to spread across her face, smoothing away the tight lines that had been there earlier when she had regarded him. Lines that had been brought on, no doubt, by the cold. That was what had prompted him to go and get the hot drinks.

Finally he extended his hand towards her. "Hot chocolate?"

She turned her luminous eyes upon him, their expression subtly changing. "For me?"

"You looked cold."

"What about Justie?" she said, glancing around.

He hadn't even thought about Justie. "She can get her own. Take it . . . or don't you like hot chocolate? I can get you a coffee if you'd rather."

"No . . . um . . . hot chocolate is fine. Thanks." She took the cup and held it between both hands, sipping cautiously.

"Do you think Cody would like one? I can give him mine and get another for myself."

"No - no. I already asked him if he wanted something. He said he'd be fine with the oranges."

"I was like that too when I used to play - but afterwards - my dad would take me for burgers and fries and a chocolate shake, and I'd still be hungry."

She laughed and he enjoyed watching how her eyes crinkled at the corners and her nose scrunched up. He felt a sudden urge to reach out and touch her cheek, but he controlled it by turning and taking a large sip of his drink, almost scalding his mouth. Why did she have to be so damn appealing?

The game started again and he stood beside her, always conscious of her presence. She was completely immersed in the game and he found himself watching her reaction to it almost as much as the game itself. He said nothing more though, afraid that he had been paying too much attention to her and not wanting to inspire any false hopes. But it was more than he could do to move completely away from her. Usually he saw her from a distance, coming and going from her greenhouses, invariably pushing heavily laden wheelbarrows. Or fleetingly at the stables when she picked up Cody. Her closeness now was almost overwhelming and he chided himself for being a fool.

The game resulted in a nil - nil tie, and though it wasn't the playoffs, both coaches opted to go into overtime. There was no game following theirs and the boys were all eager. It was still scoreless after the overtime period played out and there was nothing for it but to have a shoot out.

Cody ran off the field, ecstatic. "Mom! Mr Stewart! They picked me! I'm going fourth!"

"Of course they picked you honey," said Elana. "They want to win."

Darien grinned at him and gave him a high five before he ran back on again.

The opposing team got to go first and their first player put the ball into the net, going to the right while the goalie had guessed left. Cody's team mate missed the goal completely. None of the next three shooters was able to get it past the goalies. Cody's friend Bryce put the ball between the other goalie's legs to tie it up, and then the next opposing player's shot went off the cross bar. When Cody came up to the mark and ensured the ball was placed just as he wanted, Darien couldn't resist the impulse to give Elana's hand a comforting squeeze. He let go immediately and was jumping in the air clapping with everyone else when the well aimed ball sailed past the diving goalie's hands and into the back of the net.

"His first goal!" cried Elana.

"And it was a beauty," Darien said.

They watched with increasing tension as the next member of the opposition lined up for his shot. The ball went straight into the goalie's hands and the game was over. Colin carried Cody off the field on his shoulders shouting, "This calls for pizza! My treat."

After congratulating Cody on a well-played game and a great goal, Darien turned to Elana. "Justie and I need to get going now. Enjoy your pizza," then he waited for his sister to say her goodbyes and strode off to the parking lot with her.

"Well, you did a little better this time," teased Justie. "You should try talking more, though."

"I already told you that I'm not trying to do anything."

"The hot chocolate was a nice touch, I must admit."

Darien threw his gloves at Justie and opened the car door. "Get in before I decide to leave you here."

He picked up his gloves and then went around to the driver's side. As he slid into his seat, Justie looked over to him. "You're being very cautious. You used to be a bit more forward than this, though I admit you never had to exert yourself much. Just one of your smouldering looks would usually have them panting on your doorstep."

"Can it, will you?" Darien put his car into gear and backed out of his parking spot with a little more force than necessary.

She reached out and placed her hand on his. "Sorry - I'm being insensitive. I didn't realise that what Anya did to you still hurt so much."

"Justie, when will you learn to stop jumping to conclusions?" He threw her a warm smile. "It's been a couple of years and I'm all over that, really. I know Anya wasn't right for me - actually she did me a favour by leaving."

"I still can't understand how she could have left you."

Darien smiled at the loyalty of a sister who couldn't understand any girl not thinking he was the perfect catch. "I didn't want to leave the stables and she didn't see a future for her art career here. She was right - she needed to be in a cultural centre like Toronto. She didn't love me enough to settle for something less from her art and if I had really loved her as well as I thought I did, I should have been able to give everything over to a business manager and go with her. I've got investments in Toronto I could have managed instead."

Justie looked over at him, her voice was very soft. "You never talked to me about it."

"Of course not - I was pretty angry at the time."

"So don't shut me out now . . . about Elana." Her expression was challenging.

"I'm not interested in Elana," said Darien as he slowed down for a red light. He tried to keep his voice devoid of feeling.

"I just don't understand you."

"Which part of I'm not interested in Elana don't you understand?"

"I've seen the way you look at her. What's that all about?"

Darien sighed. He was going to have to say something or she would never get off his case. "She's vibrant. She has energy that is very . . . attractive. I like the way she looks. Isn't it possible to appreciate those things without being interested in her?"

"Apparently not," Justie said, shaking her head at him. "Apparently not."

~ * ~

The impromptu pizza party had been fun. The pizza place had been crammed full of over-exuberant boys, who had to be watched carefully so that they didn't spike the jugs of pop with salt and pepper and crushed chillies. Sam had driven Chandra's car home because Colin would not let her go. Literally. He'd grabbed her by the waist and threatened to throw her into the estuary if she'd even contemplated not spending the rest of the day with him.

Cody was on a high the rest of the afternoon. He'd joined Elana in the greenhouse, filling flats for her to plant cuttings into. He detailed every second of his goal, from the placing of the ball to how many steps he took backwards, the speed of his run up, the angle of his kick, the dexterity of the goalie, the way the ball had blown past the reaching hands, and the way the net had shook from the force of the ball hitting it. Elana smiled indulgently through every retelling.

For supper they just ate salad and then watched a video with Carl and Joy before going to bed. Elana retired at the same time as Cody. Not only was she tired, but she wanted Joy and Carl to enjoy some quiet time on their own. She lay down in her bed and attempted to read a book, but her mind kept going back to the game. It would have all been so perfect if Darien Stewart hadn't been there. She had to admit it was nice of him to get her the hot chocolate, but she suspected that he had really bought it for Justie and had offered it to her on the spur of the moment when he'd seen her bright red nose.

And what had he meant by grabbing her hand like that? At the time she had been so nervous that the encouraging squeeze had actually calmed her, but afterwards she'd had a hard time explaining it to herself. Had he been as caught up in the game as she was so that he had acted out of pure instinct that had superseded his true feelings? It was the only thing that made sense to her. He certainly couldn't have acted out of compassion - he was too hard-nosed and heartless for that. And what was he insinuating when he'd made that comment about her determination? He obviously still held it against her that she had not just given up and sold out when she'd seen what a mess her place was in.

She realised she'd never be able to concentrate on her book, so she turned out the light. Moonlight streaked her walls through the gap in her curtains. She stared at the slivery light and thought of all the work that awaited her in the morning. She wasn't dreading it - she was looking forward to it. Whatever Darien Stewart thought about it all, she was proud of her determination. Proud that she hadn't given in to him and taken the easy way out.

Chapter Fourteen

"This is the store, Mom!" Cody pulled Elana through the door of Hot Chocolates. "Bryce's mom told me they have the best chocolate in town."

"And the most expensive," said Elana.

"But Mom! I want to get really nice presents."

"Then they'll have to be small." Elana, smiled at the look of entreaty on his face.

After they had tasted the samples that were offered at the counter, Elana had to agree that the chocolates were very good. Cody looked at all the various sizes of boxes and quickly resigned himself to the ones that held three truffles for five dollars. He picked up one for each coach and one for his teacher and then he looked over to Elana. "Can I buy one for Mr Stewart as well as for Justie?"

"He's not a teacher or a coach," Elana said. "You've got no reason to give him a present."

Cody sighed, and then reached for one of the boxes that held six truffles. "I'm going to get Justie a bigger box, then."

"Cody . . ."

"Mom - please?"

Elana knew what he intended by buying Justie twice the amount, but it was Christmas and Cody seemed determined. She couldn't stifle his caring, generous nature just because of her own feelings. Cody had a huge smile on his face when he walked out of the store clutching the bag that held the four red boxes.

"Thanks, Mom." He gave her a big hug before they walked up the sidewalk to where they'd parked the car. They delivered the coachs' presents to their homes and Cody gave his teacher her present on the last day of school before the holidays. There was still one more riding lesson on the Tuesday before Christmas and Elana organised with Cody that she would bring the present for Justie with her when she came to pick him up afterwards.

~ * ~

Darien paced about his room. The book he and Justie had picked out for Cody was wrapped and he would have to go down with it in a moment. He looked with indecision over to the table by the window. The raku bowl sat there, winter sun glinting from the swathes of gold on its inner surface. He walked over and picked it up for about the fifteenth time and then placed it down again, shaking his head. He wanted her to have it but how could he give it to her? Especially in front of Justie - he would not be able to convince his sister of his indifference if he was seen giving gifts to Elana. He was far from indifferent, anyway, but it was better that neither girl knew anything of the feelings that were warring inside of him. For as much as he understood he should not expose himself, in his mind the bowl was not his. It belonged to her. And whenever he looked at it all he saw was her - it was a distraction that had to go. He took one last long look at it then picked up Cody's present and headed out the door.

He arrived at the barn just as Cody was finished currying his horse. Darien stopped in the doorway and stood still. Elana was leaning against the loose box, watching her son. She was wearing old jeans and a heavy sweater, her hair caught back in an elastic, a few strands falling free. He knew she would probably already be there but still the sight of her hit him with as much force as if he hadn't expected to see her. He hoped that she wouldn't notice his presence too quickly - he wanted time just to gaze upon her unguarded expression. Lanea would have just that same look as she watched her fledgling hawk. The same dappled light on her cheeks, only filtered through trees and not a barn window.

Darien heard Justie come in from the riding ring. She was shaking a bell-covered halter and singing Jingle Bell Rock. He quickly moved forward and turned his head in her direction.

"Look what I found," she cried. "Now all we need is some snow and a sled, though I guess a hay wagon will have to do."

"I'm sure Lina would love to go carolling with you sitting on bales of hay."

Justie giggled. "Can't you just see it?" Then she turned to Elana. "Would you like to come with us?"

"When is this?" asked Elana.

"Christmas Eve."

"Oh. I don't think I'll have time. We're having our big dinner that night because Joy and Chandra are spending Christmas day with their families."

Justie gave Darien a meaningful glance and then said, "So you're just going to eat leftovers on Christmas day? Why don't you come to dinner with us?"

"Sorry - I guess I gave you the wrong idea." Elana sounded startled, and then continued almost apologetically. "I'm cooking a small turkey for Cody and Sam and me on Christmas day. For Christmas Eve we're having something different - but thanks for the invitation."

"We'll have you two over for dinner another time then, right Darien?" Justie had a distinct twinkle in her eyes when she looked at her brother.

He remained as unaffected as possible and answered with polite formality. "Of course. I hope you will be able to make it next time."

Cody came out of the stall at that moment, smiled at everyone, and walked over to Elana. "I'm all done! Mom, did you bring it?"

She took her hands from behind her back and handed him the box.

"I got this for you," he said, holding it out to Justie, and then he shot his mother a quick glance, "but it's really for both of you to share. Merry Christmas."

Justie gave Cody a hug as she took the present, thanking him and saying that Hot Chocolates were her favourite. Darien crouched down to his eye level. "Thanks Cody, we have something for you too." He handed Cody the present and then tousled his hair. "Have a good Christmas - both of you." He looked up to Elana as he said this and then stood, without taking his eyes from her.

"Thank you. You have a good Christmas too - C'mon Cody, we'd better get home." Elana took her son's hand and they both waved.

Justie accompanied them out of the barn, but Darien stayed where he was and just looked over at the spot where Elana had stood earlier. Nothing but dust motes floating in the patches of filtered light remained, but he could clearly see a vision of Lanea, hazel eyes troubled. Lanea preparing to defend the honour of her people, her courage a thin tight line stretched to the point of breaking. As the scene developed more fully he turned back to the door. He needed to get to his computer to pound out the way the cold air felt upon her face as she came out from under the trees into the brisk wind and called her hawk to her wrist. The way her footsteps echoed softly through the forest as she clambered up the rocky trail, coming ever closer to the disturbing mist that hid the crest of the mountain.

The mountain mist dissipated. Justie was suddenly in front of him, her hands on her hips. "I hope you will be able to make it next time? What kind of an invitation was that? I left it open for you to invite them for New Year's Day."

"And I left it even more open then that," said Darien.

"One of those meaningless invitations like let's go for coffee sometime!"

"I didn't like the spot you put me in."

"Well if I didn't put the onus on you, you wouldn't have said anything," Justie said reasonably.

"And I would have preferred it that way. I'll see you later, Justie, I have to get back to some business on my computer."

"If I didn't know any better, I'd say you were caught up in some weird cyber world, the amount of time you spend on your computer."

Darien grinned. "Nothing quite so exciting, just boring contracts to read and letters to write."

"Promise me you won't be at it all night," said Justie, laying her hand upon his arm. "All work and no play makes Darien a bit of a recluse."

"I'll spend the evening with you, I promise," Darien said as he strode off, but once the mists had cleared again and he had left Lanea safely holed up with a small band of loyal mountain folk, it was almost nine-thirty and his dinner was waiting by the microwave.

~ * ~

Elana put the red ball a little higher on the tree this time. Smeagol was having too much fun removing the lower decorations and scattering them all over the living room. The tree still looked great, though. Sam had brought it in a week before, cut from somewhere in the back field. It was nothing special, just a young Douglas fir - sparse and a little lopsided, but the decorations and lights had transformed it. And now the growing pile of presents under it made it all the more intriguing.

Sam had lit the fire, and the house was warm from cooking. All that was left was for the guests to arrive - Carl and Colin.

"Have you seen those Christmas napkins I bought?" called Chandra from the kitchen.

"I think they're in the cupboard above the fridge," Elana answered as she moved another decoration away from Smeagol's batting paw. "Silly kitty! Can't you just be satisfied with the ones you already have?" As if in answer of this question Smeagol did a running dive and attacked a little clothespin drummer boy, sending him flying across the room. Elana laughed and shook her head, then returned to the kitchen to see if the spinach quiche was ready to come out of the oven yet.

"Stop picking at the mushroom tarts, Chandra."

"Who, me?" said Chandra, swallowing quickly.

Joy came in the room just as Elana was taking the quiche out of the oven. "Don't turn it off yet - I want to put the cabbage rolls back in for a bit."

"There's the door," Chandra cried. "I can't get it - I'm having enough trouble trying to fold these napkins into mangers - what was Martha Stewart thinking? Cody! Can you get it?"

Cody put the knives and forks down on the table in a pile. "Sure - I can't remember which side of the plates to put these on anyway." He ran from the room and soon they heard him talking to someone.

Elana wiped her hands on her apron and took it off. "I guess I can go out and entertain whoever it is now, though it has to be one of your boyfriends."

"I won't be a minute," said Joy.

Carl was standing in the middle of the living room, holding a bag of presents in one hand and a single wrapped box in the other.

"Who are you? Santa?" asked Elana, giving him an awkward hug. "Can I take that stuff and put it under the tree?'

"I can do it," said Carl, "but this one isn't from me. I found it on the porch. Here." He passed her the present and went to unload his bag under the tree.

"Who would leave a present on the porch?" asked Elana as she looked at the gift card. "It just says Elana on it and nothing else."

"Don't ask me - I thought you would know. Maybe Sam left it there."

"No, he's already put his under the tree."

Joy came into the room then and got a much better hug from Carl than Elana did, and a kiss to go with it. "Merry Christmas Eve, beautiful."

Elana put the present under the tree, still puzzled about it. It was wrapped in blue, green, and gold paper, with an even darker blue satin bow. Elana was printed in concise block letters on a gold card. There was no message at all, but hopefully there would be something inside to indicate whom it was from. The options were not unlimited. She barely knew anyone, and besides her family who had mailed all her presents weeks in advance, all her best friends would be there that night.

Colin and Sam arrived almost simultaneously a few minutes later. Neither of them knew anything about the present.

"Seems to me," said Chandra who had just come in from the kitchen, "that you have a secret admirer."

"Maybe it's from one of your business contacts," Joy said.

"Your back ordered mister heads!" Chandra cried. "Specially wrapped for Christmas - you'll find the packing slip enclosed."

"That makes about as much sense as anything else I can think of," said Elana.

"So open it already!"

"No - I'll save it for Christmas morning just like all the rest of my presents."

"The suspense is going to kill me!" Chandra reached under the tree for the package. "I'll rip it open for you right now."

Colin grabbed her from behind and pulled her away from the tree. "No you don't. If you are so desperate to open a present, open one of the ones I've brought."

"Which one?"

"This one," he said, and he turned her in his arms and kissed her firmly on the lips.

"Oooh, I like that one." Chandra slipped her arms around his neck. "Could I have another peek?"

He put his mouth to her ear. "Ask me later and I'll give you more than just a peek."

Elana pretended to cough discreetly. "Do I smell something burning? I think dinner must be ready."

The meal was delicious. Afterwards they all sat around the fire singing Christmas carols. Later they were each allowed to open one present. Everyone wanted Elana to open the mystery present but she chose a small one that had been sent by her parents. It was a pendant - a silver bird with its wings spread in flight. Cody opened his present from Justie and Darien. It was a book about the care and grooming of horses. The others all opened the presents Cody had given them - he'd insisted on it. Chandra and Joy both got Christmas socks, Sam got a chain for hanging his reading glasses around his neck, and Carl got new blades for his razor.

"You already gave me a gift, sport," said Colin as Cody handed over his present.

"Just open it," Cody said, grinning.

It was a picture from the pizza party, enlarged on Chandra's computer. Colin was sitting at the table with about half the team crowding behind him, each boy trying to make a sillier face than the other.

"My best present yet!" he laughed.

~ * ~

On Christmas morning Elana finally opened the mystery present. She'd left it till last, wanting to spend time on all the gifts from Cody and her family and all her friends. She was surrounded by boxes with soft fluffy scarves, sweaters, and socks sticking out from them. Books, kitchen gadgets and chocolates. Cody placed the box in her hands.

"Well, here goes nothing," she said as she slipped off the blue satin bow and tore into the wrapping.

"Anyone want to lay a bet?" asked Chandra.

A simple box with no markings was revealed. Elana opened it, lifted out a few layers of tissue and then stared, speechless.

"Well? Not the backordered misters?"

"No," Elana said, her voice awed. "Which one of you bought me this?" She took the bowl out carefully, cupping it gently with her palms. The pink, the green, the gold and the charcoal were all as perfectly placed as she remembered. "Joy? You knew I wanted it."

"It wasn't me," Joy said. "If I bought it would I have got you a sweater too? I wish I'd thought of it, though."

"Don't look at me - I gave you dangly earrings." Chandra reached out to take it from her. "Is this the same bowl you told me about - the one that got sold at the fair before you could buy it?"

"Yes," said Elana softly. "It's my bowl. But if it wasn't you two, who . . ."

"Santa," Cody said.

"Somebody obviously knew you wanted it," said Chandra.

"But there is no one else who could know. And don't try to tell me that the potter wanted me to have it so badly that instead of offering me a deal on it he discovered my name and address, hid it away until Christmas, and then secretly left it on my doorstep. That's about as believable as Santa."

"Well, I never told Carl about it, if that's what you're thinking," Joy said.

"He did bring it into the house," said Elana. "We only have his word to say it was left on my porch."

"Why wouldn't he just give it to you then, instead of buying the scarf and gloves I helped him pick out?"

"Maybe he thought I would think it was too expensive - I don't know."

"Don't question it," Chandra said, passing the bowl back to Elana. "It's yours now - enjoy it."

"Oh I will." Elana caressed the interior of the bowl. "I just wish I knew who to thank."

The rest of her Christmas day was quiet but very sweet. She spoke at length on the phone to her parents and her sisters while the turkey dinner cooked itself, as turkey dinners do so well. She and Cody read books and played with Smeagol. Sam came and spent the evening with them, telling tales of his youthful adventures that took him the length and breadth of Vancouver Island. Elana suspected they were much embellished, but that only added to their charm. After tucking a contented Cody into bed a little after midnight, she was ready to fall into her own.

The raku bowl sat upon her dresser, looking as if it had been made for the room. She was completely unable to decipher the mystery of its appearance on her doorstep, but she was beyond caring now. It fit. It was hers. That was enough.

The week between Christmas and New Year's Eve was quiet and uneventful. A light dusting of snow fell and Elana and Cody tried to make a snowman, without much luck. Cody had no school, but for Elana there was still much work to be done as she planted flat after flat with seeds. Cody helped her and Sam part of the time but he also went out to play with friends or had them over. Their plans for New Year's Eve were much the same as those for Christmas: dinner, a quiet evening, and then a dozen grapes each at midnight before running out into the still night to bang pots and pans together. Sam was going to build a great bonfire and after the noise making they were to roast marshmallows as they watched myriad sparks dance into the night sky

~ * ~

Darien had a quiet New Year's Eve too. Lina was determined to coax him into going to the party she and Justie were attending, but no amount of pouting, cajoling, or stalking about in a state close to fury could change his decision not to go out.

"You two enjoy your evening," he said with finality. "And I'll enjoy mine."

"But you'll be all alone," said Lina, sitting on the arm of his chair and stroking his cheek. "I'm almost tempted to stay at home and keep you company so you have someone to ring in the New Year with."

"Not on your life!" Justie grabbed her arm and pulled her up. "If Darien wants to be a hermit, let him. I'm not arriving at that party by myself, and I'm not staying home on New Year's Eve while my brother types away on his computer. Anyway, I want to meet this really cute guy you keep telling me about."

"Oh yes - Greg! He is so perfect for you. He'd be perfect for me if I wasn't already taken."

"You're taken?" asked Justie. "Who's the lucky guy?"

"Darien, darling, tell your sister not to be so . . ."

"Obnoxious? Obvious? Obtuse? Obfuscatory?"

"I'm not being obfuscatory," Justie said, giggling. "You are."

Lina stamped her foot. "I have no idea what either of you is talking about! Darien this is your last chance or I'm going without you."

"That's what I've been trying to tell you all night, Lina. Go, and have a good time."

Lina groaned in annoyance, grabbed her jacket, flounced out of the room, and slammed the door behind her.

"I'd better follow her before she leaves without me," said Justie giving her brother a quick kiss on the forehead. "I hope this guy is worth it."

Darien laughed and then sat back in his chair to enjoy the luxurious quiet. The last thing he wanted was to be at some noisy party making inane conversation he could barely hear and having Lina act as if he belonged to her. If he was really honest with himself there was only one person he really wanted to be with, but she was completely and totally wrong for him. He had to get over his pointless longing. He had to stop letting her infiltrate his thoughts as relentlessly as she did. He had to finish the book and eliminate her from his mind. Lanea was stumbling through bushes, leading him towards the climax of his story. And as long as her tale was unresolved Elana would be constantly in his thoughts.

The solution was just too easy. He went up to his room and typed furiously. He couldn't understand why, when he finally looked away from his computer monitor two hours later Lanea was no closer to resolving anything and, in fact, mired deeper in problems than she had been before he had begun. He wondered what had distracted him from the trail of letters he was leaving upon the white screen in front of him, and became aware of the sound of banging coming from outside. He looked back at the corner of his monitor. 12:02. Midnight. He'd practically missed midnight. The clanging outside stopped, but he got up anyway and walked over to the window.

A fire was burning like a beacon through the trees. He opened his window and leaned out into velvet darkness. The night was mild. The air smelled of wood smoke - fir and cedar. Three figures ranged in front of the blaze - shadowy silhouettes that wandered between darkness and light. He sat on the sill and thought of being there by the bonfire with them. Of the fire's glow upon her face, flames glinting in her eyes, and he let his mind travel where he never allowed it go.

Later he translated it all upon the screen - wavering black font against the bright white. Unlike the situation with him and Elana, there had been someonee at that fire for Lanea. In fiction complications could be dissolved with a few lines. Life was nothing like that.

Chapter Fifteen

The weather continued mild through to the middle of January when soccer season started again. It was a big difference for Elana and Cody who were used to subzero weather and snow for most of the winter, not drizzly, spring-like days. The fields were wet and muddy, and Elana suspected that Cody was slide checking more than usual just for the sensation of slipping through the mud on his side. As Elana shoved the grimy socks, jersey and shorts into her washer she thought back to the game. Darien Stewart had been on the sidelines on the opposite side of the field for a good deal of it. He'd spoken to Colin at half time and waved at Cody, but thankfully hadn't come across to where she was. It still bothered her that he had been there, though. Why had he come? She turned the dials and closed the washer with a bit more force than she'd intended. She was standing over it trying to curb her annoyance when the phone rang.

Elana ran into the kitchen and grabbed the phone before the answering machine kicked in. It was the bus station. Her father had shipped a trunk loaded with stuff he had found in the attic and it was there for pick-up. Just when she thought she might have time to sit back and drink a cup of tea, something always came up. She grabbed a note pad and scribbled a shopping list to take advantage of the trip into town, then quickly tied her hair back in a ponytail and threw on a jacket. She bought her groceries first and then drove to the bus station where the attendant loaded the trunk into the back of her station wagon.

When she got home Sam was nowhere around, so she opened the front door and the door to her bedroom in readiness and then went to get the trunk out of her car by herself. It was heavier than she expected, but she managed to drag it out, breaking one of the side handles in the process. With her hands underneath the two ends, she awkwardly hefted it out and up, and then turned towards the house. And with the turn her back twinged so sharply that she staggered and almost dropped the trunk. It was slipping from her grasp. As she struggled to regain her hold of it, her load suddenly lightened. For a moment all she could do was stand with her eyes closed, holding the spot where her back had cramped up.

"Thanks Sam . . . I think I pulled a muscle. Can you take it into the house for me?"

"Why were you trying to carry something so heavy by yourself?"

Elana's eyes flew open. The voice was not Sam's. Darien Stewart was looking at her over the top of the trunk. "Are you okay?" he asked.

She tried to walk and winced. "I'm fine."

"You don't look fine. Let me get this into the house and then I'll see what I can do . . ."

"I can take care of myself," said Elana as she began hobbling towards the house.

Darien followed her. When he got to the living room he looked around. "Where do you want it?"

"Just put it down anywhere."

"If I do that you'll just have to move it again, and you're in no condition to. I can put it where it needs to go."

"I can get Sam to do it later."

"I'm here now, and I'm already holding it, and may I remind you that it's heavy? Do you want me to put my back out too?"

Elana gave up. She had no idea where Darien Stewart had come from or why he was helping her but her back hurt so much that she wasn't going to argue with him. "It . . . it goes in my bedroom. Through that door. You can put it against the wall by the wardrobe." 'My God,' she thought suddenly, 'He's going into my bedroom. I hope I made the bed this morning. I hope there's no underwear lying around.'

She heard him drop the trunk to the ground and expected him to come out again right away, but he didn't and everything was silent. She dragged herself to the doorway and looked into her room. He was just standing in the middle of the floor staring at her bed.

~ * ~

Darien stood up from placing the trunk against the wall and was about to leave the room when the carving on the wardrobe caught his eye. He'd seen that bird before. He ran his hand across the twisted vines that curved above the mirror and then looked around the room. The dresser was there too, and the bed - only the bird on the headboard was missing a wing. What was his mother's old furniture doing in Elana's bedroom? He remembered when his dad had sold it, after his mom had died. He'd asked to be able to keep it but his dad had said it was just old junk. In the past few years he'd looked, but he'd never found furniture like it anywhere, and now here it was, right next door to him in Elana's bedroom, of all places. Had it been here all along?

His eyes lit upon the dresser and there sat the raku bowl looking completely at home on the golden oak. It had been right to give it to her, so right.

He turned and saw Elana in the doorway, looking tense and just a little angry, and he realised he must have been standing in her bedroom staring at her furniture for quite some time. Rather than explain himself he walked towards her and asked her how she was feeling.

"Can I get you anything? Some Advil? An icepack? A heat pad?"

"What were you doing?"

"Sorry - I was just admiring your furniture. It's very unique."

"Yes, it is." She spoke in short, clipped tones and he could only imagine that she must be in pain.

"I shouldn't be here disturbing you," he said softly. "Are you sure I can't do anything for you before I go?"

"No - I'm going to have a hot bath and then rub on some MSM."

"Sounds good," he said as he walked across the living room. "Don't forget to add some bubble bath."

"What did you come here for anyway?" she asked, just before he left the house.

Darien stopped, momentarily confused, and then he realised that she meant initially, before he'd rescued her. "I was looking for Sam."

"He's not around. I'll tell him the next time I see him."

"Thanks. Now take care of yourself, okay?"

She looked at him strangely. "Thank you for your help."

~ * ~

Elana lay back in the hot water. She had almost not added the bubbles, just because he had suggested them, but now she was glad she had. They smelled good, and though they did nothing to ease the pain in her back, they were cheerful. And God knows she needed cheering up after that episode. Why did it have to be Darien Stewart, of all people, on the spot to witness her doing something stupid? Why hadn't she waited until Sam came home? Then he wouldn't have come into her house - into her bedroom. He wouldn't have patronised her about her injury. Why had he taken so long in her bedroom anyway? What would he see in her old furniture to admire? She was sure he'd made that up. She loved the bedroom set but she knew a person like him would look down on something so old and worn. No - there was some other reason, but what? Did he just do it to aggravate her? Because if he had, he'd succeeded.

After she dried off, Elana rubbed MSM on her back as well as she could. When Cody came home from school, she'd get him to do it for her. She put on her pyjamas and lay down on the bed. Hopefully she would feel better soon - there was too much work for her to do not to.

~ * ~

The next day Elana's back was still sore, but she could walk around without much trouble. She decided that if she avoided lifting, she might still be able to get some planting done, so she asked Sam to help her out. As they worked together in the greenhouse she aired all her frustrations about Darien Stewart.

"I don't know why he was looking for you - he didn't say," she said after telling him about the incident of the day before.

"At least he was there to help you. If I know you, you would have dragged that damn trunk into the house by yourself, strained back and all, and you'd have laid yourself up in bed for weeks."

"He's just so arrogant. He couldn't help me without being critical," Elana said, and then she put on a sarcastic voice. "Why were you trying to carry something so heavy by yourself?"

"He had a point there," said Sam. "It was too heavy for you."

"Not really - I just turned badly - that's all."

Sam sighed and shook his head at her. "I know you think you can do everything for yourself, but there is a limit."

"We're not talking about me - we're talking about Darien Stewart. Why am I stuck with such an annoying neighbour?"

"I know he rubs you the wrong way, and I'm not saying he's not to blame, but don't sell him short."

Elana ripped open a bag of seeds and began planting them into the flats that Sam was preparing. "He's such a jerk."

"You know, there's more to him than meets the eye. He's got a restless soul. He's a writer - quite successful, I'd say."

"Darien Stewart? I've never heard of him. Does he write horse breeding manuals or something?"

Sam laughed. "Fiction - but he writes under a different name. Nobody around here knows about it."

"So what's he write? Supermarket paperbacks he's embarrassed about?" Elana said with scorn.

"I guess you could call it fantasy, but it's not the usual quest stuff. It's very poetic, almost abstract."

"Abstract? Him? What makes you think it's the same guy?"

"Just a minute."

Sam left the greenhouse and returned five minutes later with a hardback novel. The cover was green and misty with branches stretching low over a still pool of water. Greenday Shadows, F. D. Austen was written across the bottom in spare, dark letters. Elana held her hand out and took the book, turned it over, read the back jacket, the title page - could see nothing that identified it as the work of Darien Stewart. Nothing. Especially the words that jumped out at her off the page. Trees stand in broken shadows, sifting air from past mountain journeys - who knows where it may have travelled? She could not imagine him writing that. Ever. Sam was an old hippie - as much as she loved him, she knew he'd fried his brains on acid in his youth. Obviously he was imagining things.

"This proves nothing."

"Elana - I'm one of the few people who know Darien's full name. I was at his christening. His mother was a flower child. She had auburn hair to her waist, long flowing dresses and bare feet - she looked like a naiad. Sarah Austen - that was her name. His father - Freddy Stewart - he was from Beacon Hill. His family was the cream of Victoria society. They had old money, but he was rebelling like the rest of us in the late sixties. We were on a back to the land trip, so many of us came up island here to farm - raise goats - find spiritual awareness. Not all of them smoked too much of what they grew like I did. Anyway, we were close back then. Darien was never called by his first name; dropped it years ago. But I was there. Sarah named him Freedom Darien Austen Stewart. F.D. Austen - you see?"

"Freedom?"

"Yeah - later most people thought the F, stood for Freddy, after his dad. But it was 1969 - they were idealists. Sarah was always a flower child; ten years after she called her daughter Justice Moonbeam. Poor kid. But as far as I know she's never been called anything but Justie."

"But - Darien acts like he doesn't even know you."

"After Sarah died Freddy changed. He threw his heart into working and made that place a thriving business. Lost touch with all us burnt-out hippies. I'll say this for Darien - he has no idea who I am, and I'm not about to disillusion him."

"You're his godfather?" Elana was shocked, but the pieces all seemed to fit.

"That's what brought me here, close by, where I can at least keep an eye on him - know he's doing okay."

"But he needs to know! He thinks . . ."

"It doesn't matter what he thinks. He's right. I've wasted my life."

"No you haven't Sam. I hate to think what would have happened to Cody and me without you here to help us. I look up to you so very much. Success is not measured in monetary terms but in how you influence the people around you. You are my inspiration. Really."

Sam looked at her and smiled. "Take the book. Read it. Give him a chance."

The book ended up in Elana's bookshelf but she couldn't read it, even for Sam's sake. Whenever she saw it she just couldn't equate the book with the man. Or his name. Freedom? It hardly seemed likely, only it was an incredible tale for Sam to have invented - and to what purpose? To try and change Elana's opinion of the guy? All Sam's good intentions couldn't change Darien Stewart's attitude. He didn't deserve a godfather as dedicated as Sam.

~ * ~

The mild weather suddenly ended in early February when the temperature plummeted and the mornings dawned clear and crisp and white with frost. The heaters in the two heated greenhouses had to be turned up and Elana was glad that she had not yet put any flats out into the four cold frames. During the middle of the day when the temperature went above freezing, Elana and Sam madly worked on wrapping all exposed water pipes with insulation to prepare for the even colder weather that was forecast.

That evening Elana went out to check on the greenhouses. She put on her winter boots from back east that she'd not had much opportunity to wear, a thick wool jacket, and the scarf and mittens she'd got for Christmas from Carl. It was chilly - about five below zero - but dressed as she was Elana barely felt the cold, only an invigorating tingle upon her cheeks. After ensuring that the heaters were all running properly she was tempted to walk on into the back of the property. The moon was large, brightening the night through a wide gap in the mostly overcast sky. The clouds themselves turned the sky into an almost solid sheet of pearl grey. Everything was quiet and still, the only sound her boots scrunching on the frozen ground. It was a beautiful, magical, wondrous night.

~ * ~

Unbelievably he was done. The last word was typed. Lanea was finally able to rest, home again in her valley, and he would be haunted no more by visions of her. But instead of the feeling of supreme satisfaction at having purged himself of all those conflicting emotions that had overtaken him for the last few months, Darien felt empty. Hollow. Alone. And restless. He read the ending again and again, wanting to write more, but there was nothing more to write.

He pushed his chair back - it was time to check on the horses anyway. There was always a feeling of loss at the end of a book, but it had never been so great as this. Good thing he had the horses to think of instead.

The barn was cold, but the blanketed horses all seemed comfortable in their stalls, and their water was not frozen. Darien left the stables and walked out into the bright night, past the riding ring and on into the sparse forest of Douglas fir and hemlock. He knew the trails so well that even in the shadow of the woods he could find his way. The trees broadened out into a clearing. It was the very spot where he had first met Cody and together they had found the hole in the fence. It was still there - he had not yet fixed it - and absently he walked through the gap while his mind travelled back to his book and made the progression from Lanea to Elana.

Was that the reason for the melancholy that had enveloped him? Did he now feel cut off from Elana? But that was what he had wanted - to be free of his obsession. And then, slowly as he walked, he realised that he had no desire to be free of her at all. It was Lanea that he had flushed out of his system - but Elana he refused to let go. The emptiness he felt was because he no longer had Lanea to bring her to him - to give him the reason to keep her foremost in his mind. He had struggled for months against this realisation but now he could no longer deny it to himself. For better or for worse he was in love with her. And the strength of his love surprised him as it began overpowering his senses.

He needed time to think; but suddenly, instead, the trees parted again and he found himself face to face with her under the moon. And there was only one thing he was capable of doing. He put his arms around her and brought his mouth down to her startled face and kissed her. Until that moment he hadn't actually been sure that she was real, but her heart beat through their thick jackets against him and her lips were soft and warm. He had to stop before he lost himself in a flood of emotion. He held her out so that he could see her face, her eyes large and luminous under the light of the moon, and tried to make some sense of the thoughts that were swirling in his head.

~ * ~

Elana stared up at Darien, not really believing what had just happened. He'd kissed her. It was not some light, little, lip-brushing kiss, nor was it rough and invasive. It was warm and powerful and tender all at once. And completely confusing. She knew she should be angry, but she was still too surprised for anger.

Words stumbled out of his mouth. "Elana, I never expected this . . . I've struggled against my feelings for a long time now . . . I thought I could control them . . . I couldn't admit that I had fallen for someone like you . . .With your background. Divorced. With a child. In that broken down house next door that I wanted gone . . . But I have. I can't do anything about it . . . I love you." He paused, and then repeated firmly, "I love you."

He leaned forward and kissed her again. Softly. But she barely felt it. Her body, her mind, everything was numb.

"Goodnight," he whispered. "I'll see you tomorrow." Then he let her go and walked back into the trees from where he had come.

Elana did not move. She stood, staring after him until she no longer heard the sound of his passage through the frozen woods.

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